Obama Above Water
President Barack Obama's job approval numbers are back "above water" (where his approval rate is higher than his disapproval number), continuing an impressive rise in the polls which began in November of last year. This is the longest run of improved public job approval Obama has managed since he got elected. Obama posted a gain of almost two full percentage points in his approval rate in February, the third-best month he's ever had in this respect (and one of the two months he posted bigger gains in was the bounce he got from Osama Bin Laden's death). He wound up the month with his approval rating a full percent better than his disapproval rating, the best numbers he's seen since last June. But this trend could be flattening out, as he ended the month of February by slipping back a bit. So in the midst of plenty of good news on the polling front for Obama, there is reason for caution as well. Call it the dark lining to a very silver cloud, if you will.
Let's begin with a quick look at the newly-updated chart:
[Click on graph to see larger-scale version.]
The biggest boost to Obama's approval ratings happened at the beginning of the month of February, with the news that the January unemployment number had fallen (once again), to only 8.3 percent. The news media finally decided to report this as "good news," and the public reacted accordingly. Of course, most of the political focus for the month was on the Republican primary race, and Mitt Romney provided plenty of reasons why he truly will be the candidate of the "one percent."
The Republicans in Congress did have a chance to re-fight the battle over extending Obama's payroll tax holiday, but they (for once) realized that the public wasn't on their side, and they quickly surrendered, and passed what the president had demanded -- which made Obama look good.
The Republicans as a whole have decided, since the economy seems to be improving, that their 2012 campaign should center on two things: gas prices going up, and (their favorite fallback) the Culture Wars. More on gas prices in a bit. But the big battle in February was over contraceptives. This battle started with the Catholic Church and the Republicans occupying the moral high ground, and it ended with Rush Limbaugh proving once again (just in case anyone had forgotten) that he is indeed a pig. Although there were plenty of dire predictions about how this would hurt Obama when the fight began (full disclosure: I was one of those voices warning this was dangerous territory for the president), the entire fracas hasn't seemed to register much (if at all) in the polls. The public at large seems to be mostly of the "I can't believe we're debating contraception in the year 2012" opinion. Rush Limbaugh actually did President Obama a big favor, because now Limbaugh has cemented his image as the poster child for this entire debate (rather than the bishops).
The president entered February with his polling fairly flat, at roughly the same rate he ended January. His average daily average approval rate was holding steady around 46.5 percent approval and in the high 47 percent range for his daily average disapproval. Once the unemployment numbers were announced, however, his numbers took about a two-point turn for the better. His daily approval rate held in the 48-to-49 percent range for most of the rest of the month, hitting a high of 49.0 percent on both the 9th and the 18th of the month. His daily disapproval numbers stayed in the mid-46-percent-to-mid-47-percent range during this period, hitting a low of 46.2 percent on the 14th of the month.
Interestingly, these numbers held fairly firm through the most-substantial part of the contraceptive debate, indicating that not many people were being influenced by either side (or that the American people rate their president's job approval on different criteria than those in the media, perhaps). In the raw daily poll numbers, Obama actually posted a string of 50 percent approval marks -- something which hasn't happened in a long while.
However, these numbers started to slip back at the end of the month. Obama went "above water" when the unemployment news was made public at the beginning of the month, which held right up until the last few days of February, when Obama's approval/disapproval tied at 48.1 (on the 27th), went underwater for a day at 48.1/48.4, and then recovered on the final day of the month, barely above the waves at 48.6/48.3. He thus enters March struggling not to cross back over again.
When taken as a monthly average, Obama posted a respectable 48.2 percent approval rate for February, and a 47.2 percent disapproval rate. Obama's approval rose by 1.9 percent during the month, a rate of improvement he's only bested twice before, when Bin Laden was killed and when the lame duck Congress got a few things done before the Tea Party Republicans took over the House after the 2010 midterm elections. In the past four months, Obama's monthly approval has risen a whopping 4.8 percent -- the longest sustained good-news period he's ever enjoyed. His disapproval numbers have moved more modestly, falling 1.1 percent in the past month, for a total of 4.0 percent over the past four months. The 0.8 percent difference came from the "undecided" folks, who now seem to be giving the president more of the benefit of the doubt than they have over the past year or so (undecided went down to 4.6 percent in February, after spending the last 16 months at 5.3 percent or higher).
Since Obama's poll numbers hit a crossover point in February, let's take a detailed look at all the points during his presidency where his numbers crossed between above and below the waterline (and vice versa). To do this, we have to go back to his first crossover point, which happened between June and July of 2010.
[Click on graph to see larger-scale version.]
Out of the past 20 months, Obama has only been above water for six of them. Two of these were an aberration, as well -- the two-month "Bin Laden bounce" he got last spring. But the good news is that -- for the first time in his entire presidency -- Obama is slowly and steadily winning back support from the public. Rather than a gradual erosion in the polls (or a flatline), Obama seems to be reminding some voters why they voted for him in the first place. This is a trend which has already completely changed the face of the upcoming election, with Republicans getting more and more worried about their chances this year.
Although this trendline accelerated in slope last month (as can clearly be seen in the above chart), Obama's polling rise may be running out of steam. This is due to two competing issues with the public: optimism about the economy rising as unemployment numbers fall, and pessimism about the economy falling as gas prices rise.
The sharp spike in gas prices could wind up being incredibly damaging to Obama's approval. This is the most likely culprit for why his poll numbers ended the month by flattening out. Personally, I saw the price of regular climb from $3.59 per gallon to $4.19 per gallon -- 60 cents in a period of only three weeks (although, admittedly, California gas prices are usually more volatile than the rest of the country).
This affects all Americans -- including the enormous slice of the public which just does not pay that much attention to politics (readers of this column may be shocked, but yes, millions of our fellow countryman do not read columns such as this one on a regular basis). So far, polling has shown that the public is not taking this out on the president personally, but that may change as prices continue to climb over the next few months. Gas prices usually don't spike in such a fashion until around May, at the start of the "summer driving season," but this year they shot up three months early. This is going to mean two things: a much longer period of high prices, and much higher peaks when we actually do get to summer. Five bucks a gallon is not out of the question at all. Over time, gas prices almost always equate to a drop in presidential approval -- no matter who happens to be in the Oval Office at the time.
But countering this trend is the good news on the employment situation. Unemployment numbers going down also correlate closely to presidential approval ratings going up, historically. Last month, this was obvious as Obama's numbers spiked upwards when the January number (8.3 percent) was announced. The February number will be announced this Friday. Some are predicting it will go back up as high as 9.0 percent, but then again the weekly unemployment filings have fallen dramatically during February, so it's really anyone's guess what number will be announced this week.
If the unemployment news is bad, look for Obama's poll numbers to begin reversing the trend of the past four months, perhaps falling back below water once again. If the news is middlin', Obama's numbers may flatline and the trend could halt (but not fall back). If, however, the news is good, it may even boost Obama's average over the 50 percent threshold, which would be big news indeed (other than the Bin Laden bounce, he hasn't hit 50 percent since November of his first year in office). Which is not much in the way of a prediction, I realize, but at the moment the trendlines are so unsettled that March could truly go in just about any direction.
[Obama Poll Watch Data:]
Sources And Methodology
ObamaPollWatch.com is an admittedly amateur effort, but we do try to stay professional when it comes to revealing our sources and methodology. All our source data comes from RealClearPolitics.com; specifically from their daily presidential approval ratings "poll of polls" graphic page. We take their daily numbers, log them, and then average each month's data into a single number -- which is then shown on our monthly charts here (a "poll of polls of polls," if you will...). You can read a much-more detailed explanation of our source data and methodology on our "About Obama Poll Watch" page, if you're interested.
Questions or comments? Use the Email Chris page to drop me a private note.
[Jan 12], [Dec 11], [Nov 11], [Oct 11], [Sep 11], [Aug 11], [Jul 11], [Jun 11], [May 11], [Apr 11], [Mar 11], [Feb 11], [Jan 11], [Dec 10], [Nov 10], [Oct 10], [Sep 10], [Aug 10], [Jul 10], [Jun 10], [May 10], [Apr 10], [Mar 10], [Feb 10], [Jan 10], [Dec 09], [Nov 09], [Oct 09], [Sep 09], [Aug 09], [Jul 09], [Jun 09], [May 09], [Apr 09], [Mar 09]
Obama's All-Time Statistics
Highest Monthly Approval -- 2/09 -- 63.4%
Lowest Monthly Approval -- 10/11 -- 43.4%
Highest Monthly Disapproval -- 9/11, 10/11 -- 51.2%
Lowest Monthly Disapproval -- 1/09 -- 19.6%
Highest Daily Approval -- 2/15/09 -- 65.5%
Lowest Daily Approval -- 10/9/11 -- 42.0%
Highest Daily Disapproval -- 8/30/11 -- 53.2%
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)
02/12 -- 48.2 / 47.2 / 4.6
01/12 -- 46.3 / 48.3 / 5.4
12/11 -- 45.1 / 49.5 / 5.4
11/11 -- 44.4 / 50.2 / 5.4
10/11 -- 43.4 / 51.2 / 5.4
09/11 -- 43.5 / 51.2 / 5.3
08/11 -- 43.8 / 50.7 / 5.5
07/11 -- 46.2 / 47.8 / 6.0
06/11 -- 48.5 / 46.0 / 5.5
05/11 -- 51.4 / 43.1 / 5.5
04/11 -- 46.4 / 48.2 / 5.4
03/11 -- 48.1 / 46.4 / 5.5
02/11 -- 49.4 / 44.5 / 6.1
01/11 -- 48.5 / 45.7 / 5.8
12/10 -- 45.5 / 48.1 / 6.4
11/10 -- 45.5 / 49.0 / 5.5
10/10 -- 45.5 / 49.1 / 5.4
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
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant