Monday's report by the Gallup Organization regarding how the public perceives President Obama's performance after one month in office says much about the state of American politics.
Obama started out with 68 percent job approval, one of the highest initial approval ratings for a new president since Gallup started taking the measurement under Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. Since then, Obama's approval rating has dropped to 63 percent, with 24 percent disapproving and 13 percent having no opinion. The poll was taken Feb. 19-21, among 1,614 adults, with a 3-point error margin.
According to Gallup, this is a "typical" rating for a president at this point, better than Ronald Reagan's 55 percent but not as high as Jimmy Carter's 71 percent. Reagan's low approval rating and Carter's high approval rating at this stage make one wonder about the importance of what a high-rated start really means. Obama's 63 percent is exactly where George H.W. Bush was at this stage in 1989. It's 4 points better than Bill Clinton's rating was in 1993, and just 1 point better than George W. Bush's in 2001.
Approval ratings of 62 percent among independents in both the Gallup and Fox polls are validation of the Obama approach.
But it's what is underneath the 5-point slippage from his initial rating to the current 63 percent that is quite telling. Obama's drop has been entirely among Republicans. He has actually held steady or even moved up slightly among Democrats and independents.
Looking at Gallup's weekly aggregated tracking poll results of approximately 3,000 adults, Obama's job approval rating was 88 percent among Democrats in both the weeks of Jan. 25 and Feb. 1. For the weeks of Feb. 8 and Feb. 15, Obama was at 89 percent. Among independents, in both the first and second weeks, his approval ratings were 62 percent, and 63 percent for the third and fourth weeks in office.
But among those who consider themselves Republicans, Obama started with a 41 percent rating during the first week and was at 38 percent in the second week. By the third week, he was at 34 percent, and last week rested at 30 percent.
This is a pattern seen in other polling, as well. For example, in the latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey, taken Feb. 17-18 among 900 registered voters (3-point error margin), Obama's approval rating dropped 5 points since the Jan. 27-28 survey, to 60 percent. Among just Democrats, Obama moved up 5 points from 85 to 90 percent, and there was a statistically insignificant 2-point difference among independents, from 64 percent to 62 percent. Only 29 percent of Republicans said they approved of his performance thus far. That is an 8-point drop from 37 percent in the earlier poll.
Many liberals and Democratic activists and analysts point to Obama's efforts to reach out to GOP lawmakers and say it is an exercise in futility. They insist that these Republican voters, like their GOP representatives, will fall by the wayside no matter what and there is no point in chasing after them.
While Obama would certainly hope to get some Republican support on some measures in the House and obviously needs some of them in the Senate, his gestures of bipartisanship are intended to curry favor not with Republican voters, but with independent voters. While Obama needs some support from Republicans in the Senate, given the chamber's rules and dynamics, these Republicans will eventually fall away. It is the independent voters who view attempts to reach across party lines as essential to changing the culture of Washington.
Approval ratings of 62 percent among independents in both the Gallup and Fox polls are validation of the Obama approach. Having stratospherically high approval ratings among Democrats alone might make him the darling of the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner circuit, but that is no way to build a governing majority. Democrats are still sitting in more seats that Bush and/or John McCain carried in 2004 and 2008 than Republicans are sitting in districts that John Kerry and/or Obama won in those elections.
And while Congress' job approval rating is up, to 31 percent in the Gallup Poll and to 39 percent in the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, it is still a far cry from Obama's numbers. The tone is surely that Congress is not so much an institution that is wrapping itself around the idea of bipartisanship.
Obama is tuned in to something that seems to be escaping both parties' congressional leaders. The name of the game is 50-plus-1, and neither party has 50 percent of the voters on board, with 36 percent calling themselves Democrats, 36 percent independents and 28 percent Republicans. Obama is reading the polls and sees that the key is independents, be it in an election or a poll's approval rating or public support for a legislative measure.
The key to independents is not only being seen as reaching out beyond one's party, but actually doing it. Obama's chances of success are contingent upon getting some element of his party on Capitol Hill to understand that as well. Bipartisanship isn't just a slogan or talking point; it's a strategy, a strategy that works. Now he just has to sell his own party on it.