Winning the presidency is always a good thing, but keeping popularity is the challenge. Since 1935, Gallup has been tracing the popularity – or unpopularity – of every US President. Nobody has escaped the lows and few have gotten very high.
Let’s take a look as to how these Presidents reached those all important figures.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)
- Highest Approval Rating: 84% (January 8-13, 1942) – War seems to make people sympathetic to Presidents and this was no exception. After the horrendous attack on Pearl Harbor the previous month, FDR was forced to act decisively. He had declared war on Japan the day after Pearly Harbor and did the same with Germany not long later. It’s no wonder Americans were pleased to get revenge on the people who had attacked them.
- Lowest Approval Rating: 48% (August 18-24 1939) – The FDR administration suffered in its second term. A 1939 poll revealed that people thought that the administration was hindering business by a margin of 2:1. The previous years had seen a recession relapse that had affected many. Luckily for him, things began to turn around eventually.
- In Line With Historians? – FDR is usually ranked as one of the top presidents along with Lincoln and Washington.
Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)
- Highest Approval Rating: 87% (June 1-5, 1945) – With the surrender of Germany, American spirits were high. Despite Japan still being a threat, it almost seemed inevitable that they would fold. Millions of young men and women would return home to their families. There was also the goodwill that Truman had due to FDR’s death.
- Lowest Approval Rating: 22% (February 9-14, 1952) – The public’s goodwill evaporated when Truman fired popular general Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. Whilst Truman would one day be vindicated for the decision, it was extremely unpopular at the time. Truman’s unpopularity contributed to his decision not to run for another term.
- Final Approval Rating: 32% – Truman left office as the most unpopular President on this list, only tied with Nixon. His firing of MacArthur had been political suicide, there had been a lot of corruption, and McCarthyism had made him look pretty bad.
- Average Approval Rating – 45.5%
- In Line With Historians? – Historians usually rate Truman pretty highly, though not at the top, so these ratings seem a little strange. That being said, his decision to fire MacArthur was justified later. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
- Highest Approval Rating: 78% (November 17-22, 1955) – The post-war economy was booming. Unemployment was low and the average American was enjoying new technologies. Eisenhower was also still respected as a war hero.
- Lowest Approval Rating: 48% (March 27-April 1, 1958) – Eisenhower never had any earth-shattering failures as President, he wasn’t perfect. It seemed that the second term curse hit there.
- Final Approving – 59%
- Average Approval Rating – 65%
- In Line With Historians? – Eisenhower was initially seen as a ‘do-nothing President’ despite being popular with the public. This changed after views of him shifted later on. Eisenhower is ranked fairly highly, though not on the level of Roosevelt, so these rankings fit.
John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
- Highest Approval Rating: 83% (April 28-May 3, 1961)– It’s actually surprising that his approval rating was this high at this point due to the administration being fresh off of Bay of Pigs. Kennedy was still riding high on being young and attractive with a youthful family.
- Lowest Approval Rating: 56% (September 12-17, 1963)– Kennedy’s lowest approval did not not happen during the Bay of Pigs or the Cuban Missile Crisis. It happened just a little before his assassination. His crusade for civil rights had alienated many, especially southern Democrats.
- Average Approval Rating – 70.1%
- In Line With Historians? -Kennedy is still highly-regarded by historians so his average approval rating being the highest on this list is no surprise. Assassination always gives you a bit of sympathy.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
- Highest Approval Rating: 80% (February 28-March 5, 1964) – LBJ was able to get a lot of legislation through for several reasons. One of which was Kennedy’s assassination and the other was that he was an absolutely masterful politician. This helped his popularity.
- Lowest Approval Rating: 35% (August 7-12, 1968) – Towards the end of his presidency, LBJ was extremely unpopular. The war in Vietnam was a mess, and there had been rioting and upheaval across the nation. There was no chance of him winning another term.
- Final Approval Rating – 49%
- Average Approval Rating – 55.1%
- In Line With Historians? – Historians are often warm in regards to Johnson. If he were rated purely on domestic policy, he’d be classed as one of the greatest. If he were rated purely on foreign policy, he’d be classed as one of the worst. His economic programs and civil rights outreach are widely lauded.
Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
- Highest Approval Rating: 70% (February 13-15, 1973) – Richard Nixon managed to win an incredible 49/50 states in the 1972 presidential election. With Watergate not yet public knowledge, he was riding high.
- Lowest Approval Rating: 23% (January 4-7, 1974) – Nixon announced he was not turning over any Watergate evidence which was obviously unpopular. There was also an oil crisis that had made gas prices skyrocket.
- Final Approval Rating – 24%
- Average Approval Rating – 49%
- In Line With Historians? – Despite Watergate, Nixon is rarely ranked near the bottom. He did have some triumphs, including improving relations with China, seeing men land on the moon and a surprisingly progressive civil rights policy. Unfortunately, he also did Watergate.
Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
- Highest Approval Rating: 71% (August 16-19, 1974) – “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” A kind Everyman, Ford was unsurprisingly popular with the public. He’d just taken the oath of office and was busy trying to captain the sinking ship.
- Lowest Approval Rating- 37% (January 10-13, 1975) – With the economy in the toilet, Americans weren’t happy. Recession had hit, inflation was high, and employment was low. Americans still hadn’t forgiven Ford for pardoning Nixon.
- Final Approval Rating – 53%
- Average Approval Rating – 47.2%
- In Line With Historians? – Ford is often ranked as a below-average president, though never very low. Historians have vindicated him for his decision to pardon Nixon. Whilst they note that he did have a tough job, he still wasn’t a brilliant President.
Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
- Highest Approval Rating: 75% (March 18-21, 1977) – It was early days for Jimmy Carter. After winning a surprisingly close election against Ford, Carter seemed to represent a return to decency. With the Democrats back in the White House after nearly a decade, Carter seemed promising.
- Lowest Approval Rating: 28% (June 29-July 2, 1979) – With the economy tanking and fuel prices sky-high, the voters weren’t thrilled with Carter.
- Final Approval Rating – 34%
- Average Approval Rating – 45.5%
In Line With Historians? – Whilst Carter is widely praised for his post-presidency, his actual time in office isn’t so well regarded. He does not rank at absolute bottom, but he is definitely below-average. This initial high and later low definitely shows how opinion has shifted.
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
- Highest Approval Rating: 68% (May 8-11, 1981)– Ronald Reagan was enjoying a good week. He’d announced plans to work with the Soviets to reduce nuclear arsenals- many voters would be concerned about the Cold War. The Democratic Leader of the Senate, Robert Byrd, also announced he’d vote for Reagan’s budget. There may also have been sympathy after the attempted assassination.
- Lowest Approval Rating: 35% (January 28-31, 1983) – The economy wasn’t fantastic and when that happens, the President is usually the one who is blamed. After the turbulent 70s, you’d imagine that the voters would have wanted more.
- Final Approval Rating – 63%
- Average Approval Rating – 52.8%
- In Line With Historians? – Considering Reagan got 49/50 states in 1984, you’d be surprised he never got higher. Historians generally think well of Reagan and put him at above average, above many on this list, yet they’re not reflected here.
George H. W. Bush (1989-1993)
- Highest Approval Rating: 89% (February 28-March 3, 1991) – War seems to do Presidents wonders in approval ratings. The quick success of the First Gulf War – expelling Iraqi Forces from Kuwait – made voters very happy. George H. W. Bush seemed in command and strong.
- Lowest Approval Rating: 29% (31st July-2nd August 1992) – A year prior to this, Bush looked unstoppable. Unfortunately for him, the economy had taken a bit of a downturn. Republicans were not pleased with him raising taxes back up. Democratic candidate Bill Clinton was proving likeable.
- Final Approval Rating – 56%
- Average Approval Rating– 60.9%
- In Line With Historians? – Bush often pales compared to Reagan and Clinton, but historians are kind. His foreign policy is widely praised, as well as some of his domestic policy such as the Americans With Disabilities Act. Though he is not ranked on his kindness, many historians appreciate his pragmatism and moderation.
Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
- Highest Approval Rating – 73% (January 27, 1998) – Bill Clinton was a charmer and used that to his advantage. As the economy boomed, Clinton pushed through a bill to help with childcare and child tax credits. Helping children is always a popular move.
- Lowest Approval Rating – 36% (May 26-27, 1993) – Only a month prior to this rating, the Waco siege happened. It was hugely controversial, especially as several children and pregnant women were included in the death toll.
- Final Approval Rating – 66%
- Average Approval Rating – 55.1%
- In Line With Historians? – Clinton is usually ranked within the top 15 Presidents, though his treatment of Monica Lewinsky has come under more scrutiny recently. Whilst his average approval rating is lower than one would expect, his relatively high final approval matches with historians’ view.
George W. Bush (2001-2009)
- Highest Approval Rating: 92% (October 8-9, 2001) – After the horror that was 9/11, America needed hope. George W. Bush proved a strong, capable leader who managed to calm some nerves and say what needed to be said.
- Lowest Approval Rating: 19% (February 16-19, 2008) – As the financial crisis hit and America became more angered by the Iraq War, Bush definitely took a hit. It was at this point that many believed Bush to be their worst President since Carter.
- Final Approval Rating – 34%
- Average Approval Rating – 49.4%
- In Line With Historians? – Whilst historians have softened on Bush and his presidency, he is still placed at below average. Widely praised for his reaction to 9/11 and criticised for Iraq, it is no wonder that the final approval rating matches what many historians think.
Barack Obama (2009-2017)
- Highest Approval Rating: 76% (February 7-8, 2009) – Fresh off his inauguration, the young and charismatic Barack Obama was still riding high. He represented change and hope, especially as the first African-American president.
- Lowest Approval Rating- 37% (September 8-11, 2011) – The economy was the big hitter once again. No net new jobs were created in August, the US’ credit rating was downgraded and there were negotiations to raise the debt ceiling.
- Final Approval Rating – 59%
- Average Approval Rating – 47.9%
- In Line With Historians? – Obama is ranked rather highly, sometimes even breaking the top 10. He is praised for his legislative successes and improving foreign relations, but criticised for foreign policy and lack of bipartisanship. Some have expressed the view that it is too early to tell how good he was.
Donald Trump (2017-2021)
- Highest Approval Rating: 49% (March 20-24, 2019) – Robert Mueller’s report summary revealed that he did not believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 election. Trump had been meeting with several foreign leaders and seemed to have success there.
- Lowest Approval Rating: 29% (January 8-12, 2021) – A year into the COVID pandemic and Trump hit an all time low. Many criticised his handling of the pandemic, believing he was not adequately prepared or bothered. Cases of the disease were rising.
- Final Approval Rating – 34%
- Average Approval Rating – 41.1%
- In Line With Historians? – Though Trump has only been out of office for a year, historians rate him fairly poorly. His work in the Middle East was praised, but historians found fault with nearly everything else. Some still believe it is too early to assess him, but those who do believe him to be one of the worst.
Joe Biden (2021-Present)
- Highest Approval Rating: 63% (April 29-May 3, 2021)
- Lowest Approval Rating: 36% (November 11-15, 2021)
- In Line With Historians? – To be determined.