More than two weeks have passed since the successful SEAL team raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and, as expected, about half of President Obama’s ratings bounce has disappeared. Gallup’s tracking polls conducted through Tuesday night put his job-approval rating at 48 percent, higher than the 43-to-44 percent weekly averages he had before the commando mission but lower than the 51 percent he scored in the week immediately after. The president will enjoy some residual benefits from the raid but will probably not reap a strong and long-lasting boost in his overall approval rating.
Two pollsters from the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies offer the most convincing explanation for the modest and seemingly brief spike. In a May 12 blog post, Glen Bolger and Jim Hobart laid out five reasons. First, the event that precipitated the higher approval ratings was good news rather than bad news. Ratings bumps are larger, Bolger and Hobart note, when “the major military/national security event is bad news, with September 11 being the most prominent example. These events result in a rally-around-the-flag effect that often produces large and sustained bumps. Positive events, like the first [Reagan-]Gorbachev summit and the capture of Saddam Hussein, more often produce smaller and/or shorter bumps in presidential approval.” As sad as that sounds, it’s probably right. Crisis brings us together; success is soon forgotten.
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Bolger and Hobart also point out that the president’s base was “already home” before the bin Laden raid; Obama’s job-approval rating among Democrats, especially liberals, and among African-Americans was extremely high, limiting the bounce’s potential ceiling. In the three weeks of Gallup polling before the raid, the president’s job rating ranged from 77 to 80 percent among Democrats; it jumped to 83 percent after bin Laden was killed. Among liberal Democrats, approval had been between 84 and 86 percent; post-raid, it ticked up to 88 percent. African-Americans gave the president approval ratings between 83 and 86 percent before the raid, with a spike to 91 percent afterward.
Bolger and Hobart’s third argument, which they credit to NBC Political Director Chuck Todd, is that the public is more informed than ever before, and thus the distance between floors and ceilings in approval ratings is less than in the past.
Fourth, and as I noted here last week, “the economy continues to dominate the issue agenda.” To use a cliché (not uncommon in this column), the economy, including jobs and gasoline prices, sucks up all the oxygen in the room,so there isn’t much left for any other issue to consume.
Finally, Bolger and Hobart get in a little partisan dig that isn’t wholly unfair. “There is no telling the impact of the White House messing up the narrative,” they say. Once the news cycle of the actual bin Laden killing was over, cable news outlets and other journalists focused on broader aspects of the story, including the accuracy of the initial reports of the raid. This coverage stepped on the administration’s preferred message that U.S. forces had found and killed the perpetrator of 9/11.
Bolger and Hobart wisely conclude that, however welcome the news, “bin Laden’s death was not the game-changer some predicted it would be.” They contend, “The killing of bin Laden resulted in a small approval bump for the president but had little (if any) impact on his chances of being reelected. Obama’s reelection chances continue to hinge on the economy, and if economic perceptions do not improve significantly, the president is beatable in 2012.”
What is more important for Obama is that the economy continues to languish, and forecasters are ratcheting down their growth estimates. In the latest survey of top economists by Blue Chip Economic Indicators, the forecast for gross domestic product growth for 2011 dipped from 2.9 percent in April to 2.7 percent in May; growth projections for 2012 remained at 3.2 percent. The survey projects unemployment at 8.7 percent for this calendar year and 8.2 percent for next year, with joblessness at 7.9 percent by the fourth quarter of 2012—election season.
Among the economists polled by Blue Chip, the most optimistic 10 percent put fourth-quarter 2012 unemployment at 7.4 percent, which is where it was when President Reagan pulled off his 49-state landslide in 1984. The most pessimistic 10 percent of the economists project 8.4 percent unemployment, a much more problematic number, for that quarter.
In mid-May, the average price for a gallon of regular gas is $3.93, according to the American Automobile Association. This is 9 cents above the average a month ago and $1.07 higher than this time last year.
History indicates that presidential job-approval ratings begin to have predictive value about a year before the election and become more predictive as the election grows closer. Until then, it’s a better bet to look at the numbers that are likely to influence voters’ approval and reelection decisions. Arguably, the election results will depend on which economists, the optimists or the pessimists, are right.
One question worth asking is why the consensus for job growth is more optimistic than the GDP predictions seem to warrant. The general rule of thumb has been that the economy doesn’t start netting new jobs until GDP growth is about 3 percent. That rubric suggests essentially no job growth this year and very modest growth in 2012.
All of these are critical variables in determining whether Americans will reelect Obama.
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This article appears in the May 21, 2011, edition of National Journal.