Tag Archives: Obama approval

Why Obama’s Approval Ratings Languish

I don’t normally focus too much attention on one survey, but when it helps illuminate a broader (and not uncontroversial) argument I’ve made it becomes too good to pass up.

Readers will recall that in yesterday’s post I noted that the likely explanation for President Obama’s recent sputtering approval ratings in the face of an incrementally improving economy is a spate of bad news from overseas. The results of this McClatchy-Marist poll, in the field August 4-7, are consistent with my analysis.  It shows Obama’s approval rating languishing at 40%, the second lowest of his presidency, and the lowest it has fallen in three years. (He was at 39% approval in a September 2011 McClatchy poll.)

More importantly, in the poll Obama gets dismal ratings for his handling of foreign policy, with only 33% approving of his performance in this area, compared to 61% who disapprove. That’s a decline of 13% in approval since the start of this year, and a decline of 9% since April. As I suggested yesterday, that nosedive appears to be driven most recently by the public’s perception of events in the Mideast and in the Ukraine, as well as Iraq. Only 30% of respondents approve the President’s handling of the Israeli-Hamas conflict, and only 32% give Obama favorable marks for his dealing with Russia regarding the Ukraine struggle. (McClatchy didn’t ask about the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq, but I am confident that is also contributing to Obama’s loss of support.) In comparison, while his handling of the economy gets relatively low marks, at 39% approving, that level has remained relatively consistent for over a year now. So it appears that foreign policy is keeping Obama’s polling numbers low for now.

As you might expect in an era of deep party sorting, there is a pronounced partisan divide in Obama’s approval numbers with Democrats showing far greater support for his handling of issues, including foreign policy, than do Republicans. However, what is most telling is his declining support among independents who, as I noted in my previous post, are a growing portion of the electorate, and who were a key component of Obama’s electoral coalition in 2008.  As of today, however, Obama’s support among this voting bloc has seen a precipitous decline.

Fully 45% of respondents to the McClatchy survey now categorize themselves as independent, compared to 28% who self-identify as Democrat and 25% Republican. Among independents, 18% say they lean Republican, while 12% consider themselves “pure”, with no partisan leanings in either direction. We know from previous studies that “leaners” tend to act on those predispositions; when given a choice of two candidates, most will back the one from the party to which they lean. If this holds true to form, the survey suggests an electorate that is almost evenly divided between the two parties, with the independents likely to hold the balance of power heading into the 2012 midterms.

What is driving down Obama’s support among independents? Again, consistent with my post yesterday, Obama is not being helped by events overseas; McClatchy finds that only 31% of independents approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy. The number is lower among independents – at 24% approval – for both his handling of the Israeli-Hamas conflict and the Ukraine conflict. More worrisome, it appears Obama’s foreign policy woes may affect the midterm results come November. When asked if “November’s election were held today, which party’s candidate are you more likely to vote for in your district?”, Republicans lead on this generic ballot question by 43-38% over Democrats. In April, by contrast, Democrats were up by 48-42%, so it has been nearly a 10% net change in support across three months. During this period the indicators measuring the health of the economy have not changed much or have indicated a slight improvement, but the salience of foreign policy has increased, and not to the President’s benefit.

It can be dangerous to put too much stock into one poll. Events overseas remain fluid, leaving the possibility that a reversal in fortune could redound to Obama’s – and Democrats’ – benefit. Moreover, we shouldn’t overstate the impact of Obama’s low approval on voters’ choices come November. Fully 51% of respondents to the McClatchy poll say their opinion of Obama won’t be a factor in their vote during the midterms, including 61% of independents who say it won’t matter. On the other hand, 41% of independents say “their impression of Obama” will make them more likely to vote Republican come November, compared to 22% who say it will make them more likely to vote Democratic. Obama’s standing within the public, particularly among independents, is one factor – but not the only one – that will affect the midterm results.

My broader point, however, is to reiterate my claim in yesterday’s post regarding why Obama’s poll numbers remain sluggish. In this era of social media and partisan-driven talking points, it is easy to blame some combination of polarization, cable news, and racial animus for his languishing approval ratings. The evidence, however, points to a more prosaic culprit: things aren’t going well overseas, and when that happens, the President, fair or not, takes the blame.

Why Obama’s Approval Is Bush League, Take Two

Why are President Obama’s approval ratings so low?

The latest aggregate polling at Pollster.com shows Obama’s approval rating at only 43% which, as the Pollster.com graph indicates, is pretty much right where it has been all this year. At RealClearPolitics, which uses a slightly different algorithm, Obama’s approval stands at 41%.

Obama approval

This is a puzzle, because as political scientist Seth Masket points out, the economy is actually improving, albeit not in historically robust fashion, and presidential approval ratings usually track economic performance. However, Obama does not seem to be reaping any reward in his approval ratings from an improving economy.  Instead, his approval ratings appear stagnant. Why is this the case?

Masket rejects two frequently cited suspects: “First, let’s dismiss the simple answers: It’s not because of racism or polarization. Obama’s approval ratings have been very stable for most of his term, usually hovering within a few points of 45 percent. But he came into office with approval ratings near 70 percent, even though it’s hard to imagine any of the respondents not knowing his race. And the country wasn’t really much less polarized in 2009 than it is today.”

Instead the answer, Masket suggests, is that perceptions regarding the economy among those polled have yet to catch up with the reality of sustained growth: “Basically, because the good news is relatively new. The American economy is still emerging from the shadow of the worst crash since the Great Depression, and the recovery up until very recently has been rather paltry. Remember, GDP growth in the first quarter of this year was actually negative. And even consistently strong growth takes a while to affect voters’ impressions of the economy and the political system.”

I think Masket is on to part of the explanation, but that there are additional factors at work that are deflating Obama’s support. Let us first consider the impact of polarization, or what is more properly described as party sorting. As the two parties have become more uniformly sorted by ideology – with liberals increasingly calling themselves Democrats, and conservatives identifying as Republican – presidential approval ratings are more likely to break down along partisan lines. In this respect, Obama’s partisan support in approval ratings is almost the mirror image of his Republican predecessor George W. Bush’s.

For Masket, however, party sorting can’t explain Obama’s persistently low ratings because, as the chart above shows, even as Republican support for Obama may fall, rising Democratic support should compensate. Moreover, the country is no better sorted now than it was when Obama had approval ratings hovering above 70%. However, this does not take into account shifting levels of approval among independents. As of today Obama’s approval among independents stands at 33%, a far cry from the 52% margin he won among this group in the 2008 election and even lower than the 45% support independents gave him in 2012. Moreover, polls show that the percent of people self-identifying as independents is growing, with more than 40% classifying themselves as independents at the start of this year compared to 35% when Obama took office.

To explain Obama’s drop in support among independents, it is worth thinking about the factors that influence approval ratings more generally. As I discuss in this previous post, Masket is correct that the economy is certainly a major influence. But two additional factors come into play. One is what I call a structural dynamic associated with the President’s time in office. For example, we know that all presidents start with artificially high approval ratings – the so-called “honeymoon” effect – in which even some who did not vote for the President nonetheless express initial approval of his performance. That explains the 70% approval rating Masket references in the first weeks of the Obama presidency. Invariably this level of support cannot be sustained as political reality sets in.

The second set of factors influencing a president’s approval ratings are significant events which often exert a short-term but measurable impact. For an extreme example, think of George W. Bush and his 90% approval rating after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. On a less extreme level, as Stu Rothenberg suggests, Obama’s approval rating may be suffering from the confluence of a recent series of negative events, particularly in foreign policy. These include the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, the Israeli-Hamas conflict in Gaza and the ongoing civil war in the Ukraine, to name the most prominent. The reason Obama’s approval ratings continue to lag, I think, is because these foreign policy events have tended to overshadow the economy when it comes to evaluating his performance.

The result is that despite an economy that seems to be improving, Obama’s and Bush’s approval ratings are remarkably similar at the same point in their respective presidencies, as this chart put together by Tina Berger and Day Robins indicates. (Note: the x-axis denotes the number of days into the presidency.)

Obama Bush approvalThis does not mean, however, that the two presidents’ approval ratings will continue operating under identical dynamics. Bush’s approval ratings had yet to be impacted by the Great Recession which officially kicked in during December 2007, and which contributed to the steady decline in his approval throughout his presidency. In the long run, if the economy continues its current incremental improvement I would not expect Obama’s approval to continue to track Bush’s decline. But that improvement may not come soon enough for Democrats. In this era of increasingly nationalized elections, midterms are in part viewed as a referendum on the president’s performance. To the extent this holds true this November, Obama’s middling  approval ratings are not likely to boost his party’s electoral fortunes.

Friedman Weighs In On the “Passionless” President – But Is He Right?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.  New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is once again lambasting President Obama for being too passive and failing to rally the public behind his legislative initiatives. In his latest column Friedman writes: “President Obama has the right convictions on all these issues, but he has not shown the courage of his convictions…If you listen to Obama, he eloquently describes our energy, climate and fiscal predicaments: how we have to end our addiction to oil and cut spending and raise revenues in an intelligent way that also invests in the future and doesn’t just slash and burn. But then the president won’t lead. When pressed on energy, he will say that he just doesn’t have the Republican votes for a serious clean energy policy. But the president has never gotten in the G.O.P.’s face on this issue. He has not put his own energy plan on the table and then gone out to the country and tried to sell it.”

Friedman continues: “On fiscal policy, the president has put forth a decent opening budget bid and has opted for the same inside game of letting Congress take the lead in forging a compromise with the G.O.P. that would bring spending under control and raise revenues. That inside game worked for the president in producing health care reform and the stimulus, but in those cases he had a Democratic majority to push through decent legislation. I fear this time he will not have the votes for the kind of serious, sensible, Simpson-Bowles-like budget cuts and tax increases we need — without his leading and enlisting the public in a much more aggressive way. …It is what a lot of Obama supporters find frustrating about him: They voted for Obama to change the polls not read the polls.”

Friedman’s complaint regarding Obama’s “passive” leadership approach is not original – I noted in my previous posts that it has become a recurring leitmotif among pundits, particularly those, like Friedman, who write generally from the Left. However, the idea that presidents can “sell” their policy to Congress by leveraging public opinion is one that has little-to-no empirical support among political scientists. It’s not for lack of trying: a number of scholars have sought to establish a link between a president’s public standing and their effectiveness in getting legislation through Congress.  More than three decades ago Sam Kernell, in his book Going Public, made the most cogent theoretical case for the idea that presidents can rally public opinion on behalf of their legislative program. Alas, Kernell rested much of his argument on Ronald Reagan’s presidency – particularly Reagan’s success in getting Congress, including a Democratically-controlled House, to pass his 1981 package of tax and spending cuts.  Upon closer inspection, however, it turns out that Reagan’s success in getting that legislation passed depended as much if not more on old-fashioned horse-trading with key members of Congress, rather than any speechmaking by the President.

With hindsight, it appears that Kernell was much more effective at documenting changes in presidents’ communication strategies than he was in showing that those changes had any impact on their legislative success.  Subsequent research has found that presidents’ efforts to “go public” on behalf of their legislative program are only marginally successful and then under only the most stringent conditions.  Indeed, most political scientists view the idea that presidents can go on national television to rally support for their legislation very much outdated (something Kernell acknowledges in the latest edition of his classic text).  In an era in which the media has increasingly fragmented into smaller and more opinionated news outlets (think of the change in your lifetime from the three major evening news broadcasts to the dozens of cable news programs), presidents are more likely to bypass national news media outlets altogether, and instead adopt a strategy of “going local” by targeting local newspapers and television stations.  However, the initial studies of this change in tactics suggest it too has proved to be of distinctly limited effectiveness.  As a case in point, one need only recall George W. Bush’s ultimately fruitless effort to barnstorm through 60 cities on behalf of social security reform in 2005. In his memoirs, Bush recalls laying out his “going local” strategy with Republican congressional leaders. The response?  “If you lead, we’ll be behind you…but we’ll be way behind you.”  And so they were.  Despite giving speeches, convening town halls, and even holding an event “with my favorite Social Security beneficiary, Mother” Bush’s legislation went nowhere in a Republican-controlled Congress.

Upon consideration, it is easy to see why, and to identify the weaknesses in Friedman’s reasoning more generally. First, the “going public/local” thesis presumes that presidents can affect their popular approval as measured, for example, by Gallup polls. But as Obama is discovering, this is not the case. Many pundits were convinced that his presidency had reached a turning point when the lame-duck 111th Congress passed several pieces of legislation shortly after the 2010 midterms.  In faact, as this chart shows, after a brief bump up in approval, his ratings have dropped down again closer to what they were prior to the midterms.   As I noted in an earlier post, they aren’t likely to go much higher than this, barring a significant uptick in the economy, until the 2012 presidential campaign is well underway, and voters began evaluating him in comparison to a single Republican opponent. At that point I expect to see his approval  ratings begin to climb.


(Interestingly, approval numbers for Congress have also begun to recede – I’ll deal with that in a separate post.)

Second, Friedman assumes those approval ratings are fungible, that is, that they can be converted into a currency of exchange acceptable to members of Congress. From this perspective, a popular presidency has surplus cash in the bank with which to “buy” congressional support. But members of Congress don’t really care what the president’s national poll numbers are – they are only interested in what their smaller geographic-based constituency in their state or House district thinks about the president’s stance on any particular issue.  And in most cases most of the time, most of the constituents aren’t paying attention, or have no strong opinion. And when constituents are paying attention, they are as likely to take their cues from their Representative or Senator as they are to listen to the President.  Keep in mind that members of Congress can “go public” as effectively with their constituents as can the president.  It is small wonder, then, that political scientist Jeff Cohen finds that president’s efforts to “go local” – that is, to target local media outlets as a way of ramping up support – have only modest effects in terms of improving media coverage of the president, never mind raising his poll numbers.

I understand that Friedman is not a political scientist; he is an opinion columnist whose job is to stake out a position to get people talking.  But it is important, given his rather large readership, that someone call him out when his opinion appears to contradict what political scientists think they know. I’m sure if passing energy and budget legislation were as simple as touring the country giving speeches and “getting in Republicans’ face” President Obama would already be doing that.  As it stands, however, there’s no reason why he should pay any attention to what Friedman writes on this score.

Why Obama Should Not Sweat the “Little Spills” (and Politically, They Are All Little Spills)

The relatively disappointing reaction to Obama’s prime time Oval Office address, against the backdrop of BP CEO Tony Hayward’s Sergeant Schulz-like testimony (“I see nothing! I hear nothing!”) before a congressional committee, and the seemingly nonstop coverage of the spill itself, have collectively contributed to the impression that we’ve reached an “inflection point” in the Gulf oil crisis – but not the one for which the White House hoped.  Instead, critics (see here and here and here) are suggesting that Obama’s handling of the crisis is threatening not just Democrats’ fortunes in the 2010 midterms, but Obama’s reelection chances in 2012.  Perceptions of his leadership are rapidly approaching Carteresque territory, with the daily headlines – Day 59 of the Gulf Crisis! – reminding viewers of Nightline’s nightly announcement of how long Americans were held hostage in Iran during Carter’s presidency.

To support the claim that the Gulf oil spill is in danger of becoming Obama’s hostage crisis, critics note that public support for Obama’s handling of the spill has dropped. In this regard, Tom Bevan posts the following poll results at RealclearPolitics:

According to Bevan, that’s a drop in the public’s approval of Obama’s handling of the oil spill of 18 points in the latest AP/GFK poll, 21 points according to Fox News and 13 in CNN’s polls. As Bevan notes,  other polls find a majority of Americans criticizing the President for his failure to act quickly enough in responding to the crisis, and for being too lenient on BP.

Perhaps most alarming, the latest USAToday/Gallup poll indicates a majority (51%) of all adults (not just likely voters) now believe Obama should not be reelected in 2012.  All this has not been lost on the White House, which explains, I think, the concerted public relations efforts in recent weeks to show that Obama is on top of the issue; he has made four trips to the Gulf coastline, in addition to his nationwide address, and his top aides have fanned out to news shows defending the administration’s response.

At the risk of heresy, let me make the following assertion: politically speaking, the oil spill is not that big a deal. Note: I’m not trying to minimize its environmental implications, nor the urgency to cap the leak.  But politically it should not be Obama’s top priority.  Indeed, rather than pursuing a no-win strategy of appearing to be on top of an issue over which he has no control, Obama would be far better off by distancing himself from the spill.  The reason is that the public is smart enough to realize he’s not responsible for the initial explosion at the oil rig, and they still believe BP should take primary responsibility for the cleanup.

But what about these disastrous poll numbers?  It’s true that the public doesn’t think Obama has handled the spill very well – but that’s because Obama continues to insist that he’s in charge, and yet the oil continues to spew.  If we step back from oil spill, however, and look at Obama’s overall approval numbers (see the polls above), they’ve barely budged from what they were before the spill, suggesting that the public is fully capable of separating their judgment of his reaction to the spill from their overall evaluations of him as president.  Bevan suggests that Obama’s numbers should have gone up after the spill as the public rallies behind the President.  I’m skeptical – the oil spill is not the same rally-round-the-flag type event that normally boosts a President’s poll ratings.

Instead, I think the lesson from these polls is that the public is quite capable of distinguishing Obama’s reaction to the spill from his overall performance as president. This distinction is easy to lose if one focuses solely on the daily diatribes about the oil spill that continue to dominate cable shows and opinion columns.  But we shouldn’t confuse the punditocracy’s need to fill airtime with the real concerns of  most Americans.

What about those reelection numbers?  Same thing: they haven’t changed from what they were before the spill.  Here’s the Gallup poll data showing that despite the perception that he’s mishandled the spill, support for his reelection hasn’t changed from what Gallup was recording before the explosion:

In short, there’s no evidence yet that the public’s overall assessment of Obama’s presidency is being eroded by his ham-handed reaction to the oil crisis.  The reason why, I think, is because when prioritizing their concerns, the public is far more interested in jobs and the economy.    Oil spewing from a broken pipe may make for great visuals, and it certainly affects the livelihood of the Gulf coast residents.  It may even be one of the greatest environmental disasters in U.S. history (although at this point it’s not even the biggest oil spill).  But for most Americans, it’s an abstraction – something they see on their television screens but which doesn’t affect them directly.  Indeed, a slight majority of Americans continue to favor off-shore drilling for oil (although there is less support for expanding those efforts beyond current levels).

Given these dynamics, Obama would be far better off stepping back from the Gulf spill and turning over daily responsibility to a cabinet secretary, such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, or some other figure. Let Salazar become the administration’s public face of this disaster.  Obama should move on to those issues – jobs, the economy, Afghanistan – that are of greater concern to voters, and over which he may have greater influence.  The alternative – repeated shots of him expressing concern about the spill interspersed with video of crude bubbling to the surface and images of oil-slicked seagulls – simply reminds voters of how little he can do to stop it.