Sustaining the Honeymoon

A July 3 Gallup poll release was headlined the "Obama honeymoon continues." A few days later two Quinnipiac surveys showed the president's approval rating in Ohio and Virginia, two former red states that Obama carried in 2008, had fallen below 50% for the first time. That same week, Senate Democratic majority Leader, Harry Reid, reportedly asked Montana Senator, Max Baucus to break off efforts to engage his Republican counterpart, Iowa's Chuck Grassley, in a bipartisan healthcare reform bill and instead to work on maintaining sufficient Democratic unity to put a bill on the president's desk during the current congressional session. This move toward a more clearly partisan approach on healthcare and other crucial legislation may be the key to sustaining the Obama honeymoon and Democratic congressional strength, both of which are closely linked and ultimately inseparable.

 Gallup defines a presidential honeymoon as the number of consecutive months at the start of a new administration during which the president's job approval score remains above 55% (the average approval score for all presidents in Gallup's polling since the Truman administration). Since his inauguration, President Obama's approval score has never fallen below 55% and, with a few scattered and brief exceptions, remained above 60%. During the first six months of this year his approval score averaged 63%. As a result, the Obama honeymoon has already exceeded those of Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. As Gallup points out, "if [Obama] can maintain ratings above 55% through the summer, his honeymoon will match the length of those for Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan" and, as a result, will equal or be longer than those of most presidents since Richard Nixon.

Fundamental changes in America's attitudes toward government as well as the arrival of a new civic generation in the American electorate help explain much of the durability of President Obama's positive job performance ratings. As Morley Winograd and I pointed out in our book, Millennial Makeover, the 2008 election marked the passage of the United States from an "idealist" to a "civic" political era. Driven by the emergence of a large new civic generation, Millennials, born 1982-2003, much about American politics changed. As indicated in the following table, during civic eras Americans have more positive attitudes toward political institutions and personalities.  The data depicted below was drawn from surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in 1994, the year in which Newt Gingrich led the Republican Party to control of both houses of Congress at the height of the last idealist era, and in 2009.


% Agreeing that:

U.S. Public 1994

U.S. Public 2009

Millennials 2009

"people like me don't have a say in what government does"




"elected officials lose touch with people quickly"




 "elected officials care what people like me think"




"government regulation of business usually does more harm than good"




"when something is run by the government it's usually inefficient and wasteful"




 "government is really run for the benefit of all people"




 "federal government controls too much of our daily lives"




Across all of these questions, the American public is now more positive, or at least less negative, about government and how it operates than in 1994. America's newest civic generation, the Millennials, is driving these improvements in perceptions of government. The last time a civic generation, the GI Generation (born 1901-1924) dominated American life, in the 1940s and 1950s, sizable majorities held favorable attitudes toward government and other political institutions. This is likely to happen again as the entire Millennial Generation (only about 40% of whom were eligible to vote in 2008) comes of age politically.

These positive civic era attitudes toward government and politics are reflected in presidential approval scores over the decades. The four presidents who served during the previous GI Generation-dominated civic era (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson) had honeymoons that averaged 29 months, a number that was reduced significantly by Truman's abbreviated post-war 11 month-long honeymoon. In the idealist era that began in 1968 with the emergence of the sharply divided Baby Boom Generation and the election of Richard Nixon, presidential honeymoons averaged only 8 months. George H.W. Bush's was the  longest  (21 months) and the shortest were those of Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton (one month each). Even Ronald Reagan, an ultimately popular and successful president, had only an 8-month long honeymoon, the average for the era.

The electorate  also looks far different now than it did during  much of the idealist era that is receding into history. From 1990 through 2004 the national party identification balance between Republicans and Democrats was fairly even. According to Pew, the largest Democratic advantage (9 percentage points) occurred in 1992 when Bill Clinton won the presidency; twice (1994 and 2002) the two parties were dead even. By contrast, since 2006 the Democratic advantage has steadily grown. It is now about 16 percentage points. Overall, a bit more than half of the electorate identifies with or leans to the Democrats while around a third say they are Republicans or lean to the GOP.

At the end of June, Gallup data indicates that 90% of all Democratic identifiers, 92% of liberal Democrats, 88% of moderate Democrats and 84% of conservative Democrats approved of the president's performance. Obama's marks remained very high, and if anything, increased in June among such key groups such as Millennials (73%), African-Americans (96%), and Hispanics (81%). Obama's support among the increased number of Democrats and Democratically oriented demographic groups provides a buffer for his approval scores that presidents in the recent idealist era did not have.

But, in politics, as in physics, what goes up seems eventually to come down. Even in civic eras, presidential honeymoons end. Dwight Eisenhower's lasted 41 months, about three-quarters of the way through his first term. John F. Kennedy's continued for 32 months, almost to the end of his tragically truncated presidency. Lyndon Johnson's continued for 30 months, through his landslide reelection, until controversy over the Vietnam war and societal unrest ended it, ultimately setting the stage for the election of Richard Nixon and the end of the New Deal civic era.

And, so, Democrats and progressives must at least notice and pay heed to poll results that suggest the diminishing of the Obama honeymoon. The two Quinnipiac polls indicating the president's approval level had fallen to 45% in Ohio and 48% in Virginia could be canaries in the coalmine warning of future disasters.  While the president's marks have held together better in consistently blue states like Michigan and Pennsylvania than in these more purple states, the most recent Gallup tracking surveys also indicate that President Obama's national approval evaluation has fallen to 57%,  perilously close to falling below the "honeymoon level." .

That is why Senator Reid's dictum to Senator Baucus to cease efforts to find a bipartisan approach to healthcare reform is important and encouraging. Another characteristic of civic eras is that most voters prefer unified rather than divided government. A CNN survey taken about a week before the 2008 election indicated that a solid majority of voters (59%) wanted the Democrats to control both Congress and the Presidency while only 38% preferred divided government. When questioned about this preference, voters told pollsters that they wanted unified government to "get things done." They want one of the parties to control both the presidency and congress so that institutional barriers will be overcome and the major problems facing the country will be confronted and resolved.

A continuation of the Obama honeymoon provides the president and congressional Democrats (whose political fates are inextricably linked) an opportunity and the political capital to heed the wishes and votes of the electorate and "get things done." If they succeed, they will prosper together. If they fail, they will go down together.