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National Politics|By Amy Walter, August 6, 2014

New polling from NBC/Wall Street Journal shows a public still struggling to regain its economic footing six years after the financial meltdown of 2008. Americans’ real economic distress is one reason why President Obama is not getting credit for a steadily dropping unemployment rate and improved economic growth. The other reason a (slowly) growing economy isn’t boosting Obama’s numbers is more political in nature and ultimately more problematic for Democrats.

Buried in a recent story by CNN about their poll showing Americans’ (modestly) brightening perspectives on the economy was this nugget: "But it's a different story in the South, where the number of southerners who give a thumbs-up to the economy has remained stubbornly stuck at 34%." Perhaps the economy has not recovered as strongly in the South as it has in other parts of the country. However, it’s also true that voters’ perception of the economy is as much about partisanship as it is about the unemployment rate or the growth of GDP. If you’re a Democrat, you think the economy is getting better. If you are a Republican, you don’t.

So, with President Obama’s approval rating in the 30s/low 40s in most of the South, it should come as no surprise that southerners aren’t feeling particularly bullish about the economy. This is a big problem for Senate Democrats in 2014. With the battle for the Senate taking place in mostly southern, mostly red terrain, an improving economy may not be enough to keep the Senate in Democratic hands.

The first terms of Presidents Reagan and Clinton, like Obama’s, were marked by economic distress. And, like Obama, both saw unemployment drop during their tenure. However, as you can see in this chart our friends at Pew put together for us, Reagan and Clinton saw their approval ratings rise as unemployment dropped (as the blue line drops, the black line rises). However, even as unemployment (the light blue line) has dropped dramatically over the course of Obama’s tenure, there’s been little movement in his overall approval ratings (the black line).

In early 1983, when unemployment peaked at 10.4 percent, Reagan’s approval rating was at 40 percent. By December of 1983, unemployment dropped to 8.3 percent and Reagan’s approval rating rose to 54 percent. By 1985, unemployment was down to 7 percent and Reagan’s approval rating rose to 63 percent. And, while unemployment continued to drop into 1987, the Iran-Contra scandal took a bite out of Reagan’s approval rating.

Chart credit: Jocelyn Kiley, Pew Research

President Clinton’s first term was defined as much by a failed health care reform plan and a controversial budget as a weak economy. Still, there was a marked improvement in both the unemployment rate and Clinton’s approval rating during his second term. From 1993 to 1997, unemployment dropped from 7.1 percent to 4.9 percent and Clinton’s approval rating went from the 40s in 1993 to 57 percent by May of 1997. By December of 1999, the unemployment rate was at just 4 percent and Clinton’s approval rating was at 55 percent.

Most important, however, was the increase in approval among GOPers during Clinton’s second term. The chart below (provided again by Pew) shows a marked increase in the percentage of Republicans (the yellow line) who said they saw the country going in the “right direction” as the economy improved (shown by blue line).

With the election of a Republican president in 2000, that yellow line of GOP satisfaction continued to climb until late 2008. Since Obama was elected, the GOP satisfaction has never budged out of the teens. So, even as unemployment has dropped, that yellow line has not gone up like it did back in the late 1990s with Clinton.

Chart credit: Jocelyn Kiley, Pew Research

Back in November of 2010, the unemployment was at 9.8 percent and Obama’s approval rating was at 44 percent, with just 10 percent of Republicans approving of the job he was doing as president. By November of 2013, unemployment had dropped to 7 percent, but Obama’s overall approval rating hadn’t really budged at 41 percent. By July of this year, with unemployment down to 6.2 percent, Obama’s approval rating stands at just 44 percent with only 12 percent of Republicans giving him positive marks. For comparison’s sake, Clinton had a 31 percent approval rating among Republicans in May of 1997 and a 29 percent approval rating among Republicans in December of 1999. More importantly, Clinton’s approval ratings among independents were in the low-mid 50s, while Obama’s ratings among independents have remained consistently in the mid-high 30s.

While economists use data points to make assessments of the economy’s health (unemployment rate, GDP growth, etc.), voters are more likely to use their perceptions of the president to determine if things are getting better or not. Those perceptions are driven as much by partisanship as anything else. The more Washington engages in partisan fire-fights on issues ranging from Obamacare to immigration, the more hardened those partisan perceptions become, which is why even an improving economy isn’t lifting Obama’s approval ratings.

Special thanks to Jocelyn Kiley at Pew Research for data and graphs.