The relationship between the economy and presidential approval is one of the largest and deepest literatures in political science. Scholars have debated between objective and subjective economic indicators, retrospective and prospective evaluations, and what factors moderate the relationship between the two, but their symbiosis has rarely been in doubt. The importance of the economy for assessments of the president are so fundamental that it even has its own catchphrase: “the economy, stupid.”
In a forthcoming article in Political Behavior, my colleagues and I contribute to a growing body of evidence that suggests this bond has weakened over time, another casualty of the rise in polarization. Citizens have always held multiple motivations when forming political opinions, including assessments of the president. Rising polarization, with its concomitant animosity and anger toward out-partisans, has lowered the importance of accuracy relative to partisanship when it comes to the motivations underlying presidential approval. The relative changing importance of these two motivations is abundantly clear given the spate of recent work investigating how to reduce partisan motivations when it comes to factual assessments.
Using time series data from 1981 to 2015, we find that presidential approval is increasingly untethered from economic assessments. Under the Reagan and Bush-14 administrations, in- and out-partisans rewarded the president in line with changes in the economy. Under Clinton, however, these effects became weaker, and disappeared altogether for out-partisans under Bush-43. Under Obama’s tenure, neither in- nor out-partisans responded to the economy; the two groups had made up their mind and the economy had not statistical impact on presidential approval for Democrats or Republicans. Preliminary signs indicate that the same is true of the Trump presidency, leading a number of pundits to cry, “It’s NOT the economy, stupid!”
On one hand, this finding might be celebrated: the president has long been held accountable for an economy that is composed of many moving parts, and of which the president controls only a few. If citizens were indeed assessing the president with a more nuanced understand of how the economy works and the role the president plays in it, our findings might be cause for celebration. However, as we argue, it is more likely that presidential approval has fallen prey to the partisan blinders that have affected so many of the public’s opinions. Moreover, these findings have implications for concepts closely associated with presidential approval, such as passing legislation, and presidential and congressional elections.