Obama holds his ground
President Obama got a bit of a bounce in his monthly poll average in September, but the news is of a decidedly mixed variety. There is good news and bad in the numbers from last month for Obama, and it's looking like there won't be much of a pre-election change in his numbers which could help congressional Democrats out on the midterm campaign trail.
But we'll get to the good and the bad numbers in a bit, and then at the end take another look at which president's approval ratings are the closest match to Obama's, at this point in their presidencies. First, though, let's start off with this month's Obama chart:
[Click on graph to see larger-scale version.]
Ever since Labor Day, President Obama has been channelling his inner Candidate Obama, in an effort to rally his party's base before the midterm elections. Obama's speeches have gotten a lot more partisan and a lot feistier in the past month, and while it's hard to say exactly what impact it had on his polls, it may be having the desired effect of getting Democrats a little more enthusiastic about their chances in November. Even Republicans are now hedging their bets when it comes to bragging they're going to retake the House, for instance.
Politically, not much happened in September, at least not much that the media or the public took note of. Obama signed a small business tax cut bill, but the media yawned. All other legislation was punted to the lame duck Congress, which Harry Reid may come to regret, since there are a handful of Senate races where the winner will not have to wait until next January, but instead will be sworn in immediately (as I wrote about, when I noticed it).
In the news over on the Right, the Tea Party insurgency continues apace. Delaware Republican primary voters nominated Christine O'Donnell over the eminently-electable Mike Castle, and may have thrown away an easy Republican pickup seat in the Senate as a result. This news was met with outright glee over on the Left, it should go without saying, especially after Bill Maher decided to have a whole bunch of fun with it. Other news from RightyLand was the release of the "Pledge To America" which was supposed to be some sort of "Contract With America II." To put it bluntly, it fell short. Way short. The Republican establishment ran into the same problem the Left has had for a few years now: they wanted to please their base, but they didn't want to scare away the independents, so they got behind a compromise which pleased neither. The worst reviews of the Pledge were from the Tea Party Right, while the Left was content to merely sit back, pop some metaphorical popcorn, and watch the internecine sniping.
Lefties had two other things to celebrate in September, both Executive branch staffing changes. The first was Elizabeth Warren getting named set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (which was her idea in the first place, it bears pointing out), which initially was met with some skepticism on the Left, since Obama didn't just recess-appoint her to be the chair of the new agency, but rather named her to set the thing up (thereby avoiding a huge Senate confirmation battle). But when it became clear that this is exactly the way Warren herself wanted it to happen, it was widely seen as A Good Thing over in Leftyville. Then, at the end of the month (officially in October, but the rumors were all-but-confirmed in the last week of September), Rahm Emanuel decided to pack his bags and head back to Chicago to make a run for mayor. And there was much rejoicing in Leftyville, at least those parts of it outside of Chicago (sorry, Chi-Town, but he's your problem now...). All of this joy from the Left was dampened quite a bit by both the president and the vice president jabbing rhetorically at the "whiny" base once again.
Looking at all of the campaign-season rhetoric from Obama, though, the message both he and other Democrats seem to have latched upon for the midterms is: "Things would be much, much worse if the Republicans get back in power," which is just not one of those campaign slogans that's going to be remembered by the history books, I am sorry to say. It may do Democrats some good at the polls next month, but it's hardly inspiring.
In relative terms of polling numbers, President Obama actually had a pretty good month last month. His approval rating rose four-tenths of a percent, which may not sound like a lot, but it matches his biggest jump ever in approval ratings, from way back in May of 2009. His disapproval rate was up slightly as well, but stayed just under fifty percent. For the month, Obama was at 45.7 percent approval, and 49.7 percent disapproval, with a record-low 4.6 percent undecided. Obama not only stopped his slide in approval rating last month, he actually turned it around a bit. But his disapproval rate rose slightly as well, making it a mixed picture at best.
Last month I rashly wrote that since Obama was starting the month on an upswing, he had a good chance of posting largish gains in September. This didn't happen, because he was unable to sustain his "bounce" (which I believe was due to the "we're getting out of Iraq" milestone Obama hit at the end of August). His numbers started the month at a high of 46.6 percent, dipped a little, then recovered to 46.6 percent again mid-month. But in the second half of the month, his numbers dropped right back down again. He hit a low of 44.5 percent in the last week of September, then bounced back slightly to close the month at 45.0 percent. Obama's disapproval numbers followed the same general trend, although fluctuating even more from a low of 47.6 at the beginning of the month, to a high of 51.2 percent towards the end of the month, when it fell back a bit to 50.6 percent.
As I said, Obama's approval rating rose 0.4 percent last month, and as a result he did not post either an all-time monthly low or an all-time daily low in approval during September. To put this in perspective, Obama has only had six months out of the last twenty measurable months (the first month doesn't count, as there is nothing to compare it to) where he posted a gain in approval rating. He posted a 0.1 percent gain in March of last year, a 0.2 percent rise this March, a 0.3 percent jump in both February '09 and May '10, and a 0.4 percent spike in May '09 and last month. Again, to put this in perspective, his biggest downturn per month was 3.6 percent, in the midst of the town hall meetings last summer. So while Obama tied his best-ever month for approval gains, there (to be blunt) just haven't been enough of them, and they've all been too small, when matched up against his losses.
The bad news from last month is that (due to some undecideds apparently making up their minds) while Obama's approval rating rose, so also did his disapproval rating, by 0.2 percent. This meant he hit a new all-time high for disapproval on both a monthly (49.7 percent) and daily (51.2 percent) basis.
What's even more ominous is that the trendlines aren't all that great, heading into October. Obama's numbers have been slipping for a couple of weeks now, and while a few decent polls will help reverse this, it remains to be seen whether Obama can hold his ground in the polling next month, since it'll be in the midst of the midterm campaign frenzy.
If Obama keeps true to form, his numbers will stabilize next month, with little or no movement in either direction. Obama has gone through the following cycle over and over again so far: approval significantly drops for a few months, then Obama bounces back very slightly for one month, followed by a few months of relative stability, until he starts dropping again, and the cycle repeats. But we'll have to wait at least another month to see if Obama follows this template once again, or not.
Obama versus Reagan
Every few months, I post the following comparison, just to give pause to both the Left and the Right. Because as time goes by, Obama's approval numbers have been very closely tracking one particular previous occupant of the Oval Office -- none other than Ronald Reagan. Every so often, a political commentator will point out that Obama's numbers are currently better than Carter's or Clinton's were at the same point in their presidencies (which they are -- you can see comparison charts all the way back to Eisenhower, updated monthly, at my ObamaPollWatch.com site, if interested). But I personally have been struck at how closely Obama and Reagan are following the same path. Take a look, to see what I'm talking about (Reagan's second term is not charted, to make this easier to read):
[Click on graph to see larger-scale version.]
Not only have their lines been tracking overall on the same general trajectory, but check out the last six months or so -- the lines are tracking not just on a general smoothed-out trendline, but month-to-month in almost perfect synch.
Conservatives have built up the myth of Reagan as being well-loved throughout his presidency, but he hit the same midterm doldrums Obama now finds himself in, and for almost exactly the same reason -- the economy was in the same doldrums, and it wasn't recovering fast enough to do the president any good politically. Reagan was about two points lower than Obama in disapproval, but he was almost four points lower in approval, as well.
It's also interesting to note that Reagan hit bottom right when the new midterm Congress (where Republicans took a shellacking) was sworn in. After this point, he enjoyed a fairly steady rise as the economy eventually started to do better. Now, it's impossible to say that Obama's numbers will do the same, and at some point these two graphs are likely going to stop tracking each other so closely -- which could be either good news for Obama, or bad, depending on which way it goes.
But for now, it's interesting to note the similarities. Not to equate the two presidents, but as an alternative narrative to the "Obama's poll numbers really stink" talking point you hear so often in the media these days. Well, yeah -- they're not great. But, looking back at the last few presidents (who didn't start a war during this period), they're actually about what you'd expect at this point in his term. It's good to remember this every so often.
[Obama Poll Watch Data:]
Obama's All-Time Statistics
Highest Monthly Approval -- 2/09 -- 63.4%
Lowest Monthly Approval -- 8/10 -- 45.3%
Highest Monthly Disapproval -- 9/10 -- 49.7%
Lowest Monthly Disapproval -- 1/09 -- 19.6%
Highest Daily Approval -- 2/15/09 -- 65.5%
Lowest Daily Approval -- 8/16/10 -- 44.3%
Highest Daily Disapproval -- 9/26/10 -- 51.2%
Lowest Daily Disapproval -- 1/29/09 -- 19.3%
Obama's Raw Monthly Data
[All-time high in bold, all-time low underlined.]
Month -- (Approval / Disapproval / Undecided)
09/10 -- 45.7 / 49.7 / 4.6
08/10 -- 45.3 / 49.5 / 5.2
07/10 -- 46.6 / 47.4 / 6.0
06/10 -- 47.6 / 46.7 / 5.7
05/10 -- 48.1 / 45.5 / 6.4
04/10 -- 47.8 / 46.5 / 5.7
03/10 -- 48.1 / 46.4 / 5.5
02/10 -- 47.9 / 46.1 / 6.0
01/10 -- 49.2 / 45.3 / 5.5
12/09 -- 49.4 / 44.9 / 5.7
11/09 -- 51.1 / 43.5 / 5.4
10/09 -- 52.2 / 41.9 / 5.9
09/09 -- 52.7 / 42.0 / 5.3
08/09 -- 52.8 / 40.8 / 6.4
07/09 -- 56.4 / 38.1 / 5.5
06/09 -- 59.8 / 33.6 / 6.6
05/09 -- 61.4 / 31.6 / 7.0
04/09 -- 61.0 / 30.8 / 8.2
03/09 -- 60.9 / 29.9 / 9.2
02/09 -- 63.4 / 24.4 / 12.2
01/09 -- 63.1 / 19.6 / 17.3
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant