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Obama Ratings Leveling Off At 35,000 Feet Obama Ratings Leveling Off At 35,000 Feet

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POLITICS

Obama Ratings Leveling Off At 35,000 Feet

Optimism about the economy could explain why the president's popularity is up.

So what's with the recent rise in President Obama's already high job-approval ratings?

From January through April, the Gallup Poll found that the new president had, on average, 63 percent approval, which is not as strong as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Carter had at the start of their presidencies but higher than where Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes began. During those first months, Obama's approval rating once dipped as low as 59 percent in Gallup's three-night moving averages and twice reached as high as 68 percent.

 

Obama has escaped virtually unscathed from any number of embarrassments.

More recently, in 12 sets of three-night tracks, each of which included polling in May, Obama's lowest approval rating was 64 percent. His high remained 68 percent, but every night except one his rating was 66 percent or above -- suggesting that his approval has plateaued at a higher level.

Stepping back for a second to dissect the ratings, we find that in eight of the past nine weeks of Gallup polling, Obama's job-approval rating among self-identified Democrats has run at or slightly above 90 percent. Among independents, in nine of the 12 weeks he has been in office, Obama has averaged 60 percent or higher. Among Republicans, in seven of the past nine weeks, he has averaged less than 30 percent, usually 27 or 28 percent, although for the past two weeks his Republican support has ticked up to 31 percent. With Democrats running 7 percentage points higher than Republicans in party identification this year, Obama's sky-high approval ratings among Democrats end up influencing his overall score far more than the marks he gets from Republicans. That fact and gaining a bit of ground among independents explain Obama's solid numbers.

 

Why have they ticked up this month? The slight increase in the Democratic president's dismal approval ratings among Republicans in the past two weeks doesn't explain a lot. Looking at the demographics, the rise was proportionally larger among those who are 18 to 29 years old, live in the eastern part of the country, earn less than $2,000 a month, are independents, attend church weekly, and are married.

But the most persuasive answer to the "why the uptick" question might be found elsewhere in the Gallup results. Consumer attitudes have shifted strongly in recent weeks. More optimism -- or maybe less pessimism -- is the order of the day. As Gallup's chief economist, Dennis Jacobe, put it in a May 12 report, there has been a "surge in consumers' overall economic mood, but also slight increases in consumer spending and employee job-market perceptions. The improving consumer psychology may finally be producing some modest spending gains, but it will take a few weeks before it is clear whether this improvement was a pre-Mother's Day blip or something more lasting."

The public's cautious optimism is in sync with a growing body of evidence suggesting that the U.S. economy's decline has slowed considerably and the bottom may be in sight.

Since dropping to 6,547 on March 9, the Dow Jones industrial average has closed above 8,212 every day so far in May, at least as of press time. Whether the stock market's climb is causing greater optimism or simply reflecting it isn't clear. But, as the most widely disseminated economic statistic coming out every day, the Dow's performance can help create a mind-set -- negative when it falls, positive when it moves upward.

 

So the Dow and the growing optimism about the overall economy could be boosting Obama's rating. Given the enormous, even perilous, challenges facing the president in the coming months -- overhauling health care and enacting a cap-and-trade energy plan, to name just two -- he will very likely find it impossible to maintain his approval ratings.

The chances that the struggles over health care or energy could turn into political disasters are great. But the fact that Obama carries high job-approval ratings into these battles will give him a bit of what Austin Powers called "mojo."

Obama's current level of support is also a testament to some pretty deft footwork on his part. He has escaped virtually unscathed from any number of embarrassments -- from Cabinet nominees' tax problems to the Air Force One photo shoot over Manhattan -- comparable to some of the job-rating killers that prematurely ended other presidents' honeymoons.

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But whatever the cause of Obama's good scores, his "arrow" seems to be pointing up, undoubtedly expanding his chances of advancing his gigantic agenda.

This article appears in the May 16, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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