Rating Presidential Performance: The EAR of the President

So who is the MVP (Most Valuable President)?

Last week, Philip Bump of the Washington Post published an interesting little  post outlining what he thought were the best and the worst years to have been President in the last 70-odd years. The method was simple: compare across years how presidential approval, as measured by Gallup polls, changed over the course of the year. It’s just intended for fun, and not in any way scientific. The results are interesting, however. The best year? GW Bush, year 1. The worst? His father’s annus horribilis in 1991, when his approval dropped a stomach churning 33%.

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Of course, it immediately struck me that I could do something similarly unscientific, yet WAAAAY more needlessly sophisticated. In part, I am inspired  by the sabermetrics revolution here in its pursuit of  WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. It’s a master statistic capturing a player’s total contribution to the team.

What if we could do something similar for politics? We political scientists do go on about the fundamentals, and indeed, basic factors like the decision to go to war, or changes in economic growth have consistently been associated with presidential election performance, even if they are not always decisive.

Accordingly, they provide a good starting point for what I am determined to call EAR—Executive Above Replacement. It takes into account things like year over year changes in economic performance, the start of military adventures abroad, and the presidential year. (i.e. 1 through 8. Years 5 and 6 are always a bloodbath, while years 4 and 8 tend to turn out well for the sitting president’s approval.)

Basically, using OLS regression estimates and a bit of subtraction, it tells us how much  we ought to blame or praise the president for changes in his approval rating after controlling for war initiation and changes in the economy, both key fundamentals. There are lots of methodological notes I could make about how exactly I did this, and all the ways in which it is a bit sketchy here and there, but it’s nearly a stone-cold lock that no one will read them anyways, so I’m going to wait until asked about them.

And now, without further ado, I give you, the EAR of the President of the United States.

A couple of results jump out. Some Presidents, when handed lemons, made lemonade (Carter in ’79). Others took those lemons, planted in the ground, and ended up with many many more lemons (Carter again, in ’80). Conversely, some made good times seem better (Clinton in ’96), while others made even good times seem pretty lousy (Kennedy in ’62).  President Bush the elder really did mess up in 1991. That’s almost all on him. Likewise, even in comparison with other foreign adventure initiation years, 2001 brought the US behind the US like nothing before or since. It didn’t last long however, as 2002 was one of the worst fundamentals-adjusted performances on record. Carter was really, really popular back in ’79, when he had little right to be. And there really was something about Ronnie and Bill. They both posted multiple top-ten years. Folks love sunshine and folksy empathy, I guess, regardless of just about anything else.

As for Obama, he’s mostly been middle-of-the-pack, but his performance in 2012 was notable. Even accounting for the fact it was a year 4, he still put up the 9th best president-year since 1961 (the first year I could get data for).

Here’s the full list, ranked from best EAR year, to worst.

Year President change in growth change in polls EAR of the President
2001 WBush -3.1 28.0 32.4
1979 Carter -2.4 17.5 25.0
1987 Reagan -0.1 10.0 14.3
1988 Reagan 0.7 10.0 13.1
1996 Clinton 1.1 9.0 11.7
1975 Ford 0.3 6.5 11.1
1997 Clinton 0.7 6.0 9.1
1984 Reagan 2.6 9.0 9.0
1972 Nixon 2.0 7.0 8.3
2012 Obama 0.9 5.0 8.1
2000 Clinton -0.8 3.0 8.1
2008 WBush -2.1 0.0 7.8
1990 HWBush -1.8 5.0 7.3
1985 Reagan -3.0 -2.0 6.1
1983 Reagan 6.5 15.0 5.7
1982 Reagan -4.5 -6.0 5.3
1992 HWBush 3.6 10.0 4.8
1971 Nixon 0.1 0.0 4.2
1976 Ford 5.6 7.0 3.4
1989 HWBush -0.5 3.0 3.3
1995 Clinton -1.3 -3.0 3.2
2005 WBush -0.4 -3.0 1.9
2007 WBush -0.9 -4.0 1.8
1993 Clinton -0.8 -4.0 1.5
1978 Carter 1.0 -2.0 0.6
2010 Obama 5.3 3.0 0.4
1970 Nixon 0.1 -4.0 0.2
2004 WBush 1.0 0.0 -1.7
2011 Obama -0.7 -3.0 -2.1
1998 Clinton 0.0 -2.0 -2.5
2003 WBush 1.0 -2.0 -3.5
2006 WBush -0.7 -9.0 -3.7
1962 Kennedy 3.8 -4.0 -5.3
1964 Johnson 1.4 -3.0 -5.7
2009 Obama -2.5 -15.0 -6.1
1994 Clinton 1.3 -4.0 -6.2
2013 Obama -0.9 -12.0 -6.2
1966 Johnson 0.1 -10.0 -6.5
1999 Clinton 0.4 -10.0 -6.6
1963 Kennedy -1.7 -16.0 -9.7
1965 Johnson 0.6 -8.0 -9.7
1986 Reagan -0.7 -15.0 -9.8
1977 Carter -0.8 -15.0 -10.0
1974 Nixon-Ford -6.2 -24.5 -11.3
1980 Carter -3.4 -21.0 -11.5
1981 Reagan 2.8 -16.0 -15.4
2002 WBush 0.8 -21.0 -22.1
1991 HWBush -2.0 -33.0 -25.4
1973 Nixon 0.4 -30.0 -26.7

One final note: the same approach allows me to isolate what each president’s average contribution is, year after year (specifically by inserting a presidential-specific dummy into my initial regression). These are in some ways the most surprising results of all. Ford actually comes off very well, though this is in part because his terrible decline in popularity coincides the year he and Nixon both were office. Reagan comes in number two, and look who’s in number three? There are two years left, but so far, the numbers suggest Obama’s been doing more than all right.

Coefficient P-value
Ford 17.25 0.19
Reagan 7.68 0.39
Obama 7.24 0.50
WBush 5.84 0.55
Clinton 4.31 0.62
HWBush -0.56 0.96
Nixon -0.70 0.94
Kennedy -6.70 0.56
Johnson -11.41 0.29
Nixon/Ford -13.14 0.38

The only downside of this approach? None of it comes close to being statistically significant. It’s all bunk, and I’ve been deliberately wasting your time.

photo credit: sweejak via photopin cc

photo credit: Obama-Biden Transition Project via photopin cc

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