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.


  1. You can fool some of the people, all of the time, and all of the people, some of the time…

    The magic is gone, and the malaise that covers our country has caught up with the person most responsible. It is not his race, nor his party. It is his incompetence, pure and simple.

    God bless the American people; sometimes they are slow to the party, but they are resilient, and once they get it, they will heal themselves.

  2. Matt, Time for another T-shirt contest? How many days before we have some more boots on the ground. My number is 15.

  3. Jack,

    I think I’m taking the over, although before I can start handing out t-shirts we are going to have to define “boots on the ground.” I’ve no doubt we’ve already placed spotters on the ground to help with targeting by air of IS forces in Iraq, in addition to covert operatives helping the Kurds and Iraqi government security forces. But you mean a substantial regular ground force, don’t you? Seems to me that unless we have a real security collapse, Obama will want to hold off until after the midterms. At that point he needn’t worry about the electoral consequences of reversing himself. What’s interesting, however, is how the military brass is already making it publicly known that they don’t think they can stop IS without boots on the ground.

  4. Matt:

    They can’t stop IS without boots on the ground because IS already figured out the solution. Same as Hamas. Hide in the civilian population.

    That takes the USAF out of it.

    Obama has hard choices here; this is not community organizing. He can’t reach out his hand in friendship; he can’t apologize.

    If you are in the Reserves or Guard, you might want to check your camos out to see if they still fit.

    I think Obama is finally finding out that wars are over when the enemy says so, not you.

  5. Shelly,

    You make a crucial observation, one that I’ve been meaning to develop in a full post. Obama came to office promising to extricate the U.S. from two wars overseas. The difficulty becomes when the price for keeping that promise means that one or both regions go to hell in a handbasket, negating any progress the U.S. has made in the region. What, as president, do you do? Keep your promise that you will withdraw U.S. forces, consequences be damned? Or renege on the promise to prevent a total security breakdown? I don’t think Obama or his advisers have fully come to grips with what are a pair of unpalatable options. If pressed, I think his response would be to split the difference – neither all in nor all out – in the hope of buying time so that the governments in question can stand on their own two feet.

  6. Matt:

    He already tried that; didn’t work.

    Now, it is just too late. IS is way too strong; they are led by someone that knows strategy and tactics. More importantly, until their (formerly, our) ordinance runs out, they are exceptionally well armed.

    Only boots on the ground, and soon, will slow them down or stop them.

    He will likely try Special Forces posing as “Advisors” but that won’t be enough. Do you realize they are spread over a 600 mile front?

    Boots, and a lot of them. Or lose big. My number is 60, just because he is such a ditherer.

  7. When did the military brass ever not want to put more boots on the ground?
    The middle east wars are a great breeding ground for GENERALS. Arnold

  8. Right, “boots on the ground” an unfortunate euphemism for more American deaths,maiming both psychologically and physically, more stoking hatred and disrespect of the U.S. in the Middle East and elsewhere, more wasted money now and in the future (due to the maiming) in yet another confrontation with intractable, ancient, religious ideologies. Are our proponents of again putting boots on the ground eager to sign up for a pair of G.I. boots? Do they reflect on the near total lack of success of U.S. “boots on the ground” since Vietnam?

  9. Arnold and Bob,

    My sense is that Obama shares your strong aversion to putting significant troops on the ground in Iraq, and for the reasons you cite. The difficulty becomes if he faces a choice – as his military advisers suggest he will – between not putting troops on the ground and “losing” Iraq to the Islamic State or putting more troops in with all the costs that entails. Neither choice is optimal, and both have substantive policy and political costs. I don’t think he’s fully faced up to this dilemma – my guess is he’s hoping to buy time with air strikes in the hope the situation stabilizes there. Meanwhile, news reports from today indicate more than a hundred U.S. “advisers” will be sent to Iraq on top of however many are there already. If true, this will inevitably stoke the “mission creep” and Vietnam analogies. As I told Jack, I just don’t see Obama reversing himself this close to the midterm and putting a substantial ground force back in Iraq.

  10. No one says Obama wants to do it; he has caused this situation himself by evidencing an unwillingness to do it.

    So far, only males are posting here, so I ask the question: “As you were growing up, how many fights did you avoid by being willing to fight?”

    And the corollary “How many fights happen because one participant is afraid to fight?”

    All wars are caused by miscalculations by one or both sides.

  11. “Oderint dum metuant” (Let them hate as long as they fear) Lucius Accius (and later, Cicero)

    Brian, there are people in this world who do not respond to civility; right now, there are about 15,000 of them cutting off heads of those who will not convert to their form of religion. Of what do they fear? What will stop them?

    America has been the force for freedom and right for a long time; our enemies feared us and our friends trusted us. Obama may be civil, but he has dissipated both the friendships and the fears.

    The present Pope has allowed the Vatican to depart from its usual positions against all war to make statements indicating that force may be needed to save these souls.

    America has been fundamentally transformed, just like he promised.

    Is it a better America? A more civil America? Shall we all reach out our hands in friendship to Al Qaeda, The Taliban and now ISIS?

    For me, Accius and Cicero got it right.

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