Guess Who’s Gaining Popularity? (It’s Not Who You Think!)

Numerous pundits have noted that President Obama’s approval ratings, after remaining stagnant through much of 2010, began slowly climbing in December.  Typically, they attribute this climb to some combination of the following factors:  public support for the compromise legislation passed by the Democratically-controlled lame-duck 111th Congress; a “rally round the flag effect” from the Tucson shooting, a slight drop in unemployment, and a slight bump from the State of the Union speech.  Here’s the composite numbers from the website:

Chris Weigant, writing at, provides a fairly typical if somewhat hyperbolic analysis of this upward trend: “For the month of January, Obama charted 48.5 percent approval — up an astonishing three full points over his previous month. At the same time, he posted a disapproval rate of only 45.7 percent — down a similarly-astonishing 2.4 points. His “undecided” numbers went down slightly from last month’s high, to 5.8 percent. For both approval and disapproval, this is the biggest positive change month-to-month Obama has ever charted. By far — his change in disapproval is almost two-and-a-half times better than his previous “best” month; and his change in approval is seven-and-a-half times as big as his previous record in this category.”

Some are even suggesting that this jump in approval represents a possible turning point in Obama’s presidency – one based in part on his “besting” of the Republicans in Congress during December’s lame duck session. Before we get too carried away, however, keep in mind that the “astonishing” jump described by Weigant is well within the margin of error of most approval surveys.

More importantly, however, the pundits’ focus on the rise in Obama’s public support threatens to overlook an even more “astonishing” change in Congress’ approval ratings, as indicated in this composite rating at

If we go back to the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, Obama’s approval/disapproval ratings have gone from 48.6/45.9 to today’s 49.2/44.7 (figures from Real Politics composite polling data), a net gain in approval of almost 2%.  In that same period, however, Congress has gone from 18.7/73.7 approve/disapprove under a Democratic majority to today’s 24.4/69, a net gain in approval of just over 10% since the Republicans took over the House. (I use the RealClear Politics composite poll because it shows actual average trends by day – the composite poll does not.)

Does this mean Republicans have “bested” Obama?  Hardly.  Instead, it is a reminder of a point that I have made on several previous occasions: in contrast to pundits, the public does not tend to view presidential-congressional relations as a “zero-sum” game, in which a victory by one side equals a loss by the other.  Instead, they are much more interested in seeing the president and Congress work together, preferably in bipartisan fashion, to pass legislation that is in the general interest.  And that is precisely what the Democratically-controlled lame duck session of the 111th Congress did, by passing START, extending the Bush tax cuts for all income earners, and repealing DADT. This legislation, moreover, did not pass in purely partisan fashion; in contrast to health care or the stimulus bill, these bills attracted Republican support.

Note, as this Gallup poll from the first week of January shows, the increase in approval for Congress starts before the Tucson shooting or State of the Union address.

Moreover, congressional approval ratings went up among Democrats, Republicans and Independents.  In short, when Congress and the President work together, most voters – regardless of partisan leanings – approve.

Obama has been heavily criticized, particularly from those on his Left, for continuing to try to reach bipartisan agreements with congressional Republicans.  Most recently, progressives excoriated him for breaking his campaign promise and instead agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts for all income earners.  But the reality is that Obama’s political instincts are sound – as the polling data indicates, voters do reward political compromise based on bipartisanship.  The difficulty is finding issues on which such compromise is possible.  Looking down the road, I see a few possibilities: energy legislation, immigration and entitlement reform are all issues on which, in theory, there is room for bipartisan agreement.  To pass legislation addressing these issues, however, will require both parties to muzzle their ideological extremes – not an easy task by any means. The evidence suggests, however, that when such compromises are made, both parties in Congress and the President benefit.


  1. This also probably has something to do with the fact that during the 2010 election campaigns, candidates and groups were out on the campaign trail enthusiastically bashing both the president and Congress. With the campaign over, the public isn’t receiving as many negative cues as before.

  2. Good point Bert. If I can, I’ll try to compare the pre-election cycle approval ratings with the current ones as well.

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