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Legacy Content / OFF TO THE RACES

Obama Putting His Approval Numbers To Work

Dip In President's Ratings May Signal A Willingness On His Part To Spend Some Political Capital

June 23, 2009

A recurring theme in last week's political news, particularly on cable, was that President Obama's job ratings had dipped.

The coverage initially played off an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted June 12-15 among 1,008 adults -- with a 3-point error margin -- indicating that his job approval numbers had dropped to 56 percent, from 61 percent in April, with his disapproval up to 34 percent, from 30 percent.

At first glance, the drop didn't look particularly meaningful. After all, a CBS News/New York Times survey showed 63 percent approval for Obama and Pew Research reported the number at 61 percent. The CBS/NYT poll was conducted among 895 adults, from June 12-16 and has a 3-point error margin. The Pew poll of 1,502 adults from June 10-14 has a 3-point error margin.

 

The question isn't success or failure in terms of getting major policy changes through. It's how much will they need to compromise to get it through.

Along with the Gallup Organization's national tracking, which at the time was showing a 61 percent approval, the NBC/WSJ poll looked like the outlier of the bunch.

Later in the week and over the weekend, the Gallup tracking -- 1,500 interviews, with a 3-point error margin -- began showing a trailing-off as well.

Up until this last week, in tracking released every day of his presidency, Obama's overall job approval rating had gone to 59 percent four times, but never below that point.

But on the Gallup tracking Tuesday through Thursday nights, the approval dipped down to 58 percent for the first time. Then when the three-night moving averages that included Friday and Saturday nights were added, it went to 57 percent approval and 35 percent disapproval, remaining at that level in Friday through Sunday interviewing.

This is compared to 61 percent approval, 32 percent disapproval, as recently as June 14-16.

Are these big shifts? Of course not. They are just on the edge of the margin of error. A stock market analyst looking at these charts would be focusing on whether the trading range had been breached. That is, when you have 150 days or so with percentages within a precisely defined range, when those ranges are penetrated, it's worth noting. In fact, closer scrutiny is advised to see if there are any significant changes taking place.

Having said and probably overstated those points, it would have been a good guess two months ago that Obama would not be able to hold up high numbers once June and July came and he and Congress got down to the short strokes on health care reform and climate change, on the heels of significant restructuring of the financial and automobile sectors. For good measure, toss in a few more smokers now that Congress passed and Obama signed legislation giving the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco.

Whether one agrees or not with the direction and specifics of what Obama and congressional Democrats are seeking to do, only the vainest of politicians would build up big job approval ratings for the sake of a high number. It has long been said that high job approval ratings are not like trophies to be put on a shelf and admired. High approval numbers mean political capital, capital that is to be accumulated and eventually used, to help accomplish tough tasks.

The plethora of recent polling suggests that Americans personally approve of Obama and how he is doing his job but are not necessarily supportive of all his proposals. Rising federal spending and deficits, which he inherited but obviously hasn't been able to reverse, are causing a great deal of angst.

Still, there seems to be agreement with the broad goals that he has set out, a willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt, which doesn't deny that the doubts are there. The true measure is, "What do they do with it?"

Since the election, two of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's axioms have entered the political lexicon. The first he said on CBS's "Face the Nation," which is "Rule 1: Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things." The second rule comes from reporting by the New York Times' Matt Bai, who writes that Emanuel is fond of telling the staff, "The only nonnegotiable principle here is success. Everything else is negotiable."

Combine those two thoughts with another saying that Obama himself frequently uses on many different issues, not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Agree or disagree with him, this is a president who is seeking to take advantage of a national crisis to do several grand things but is willing to settle for a few good things instead. Sure, he would like to redesign the nation's entire health care system and institute cap-and-trade climate change policy. But he will settle for making some big changes to the system. As much as he would like the full loaf, the half loaf is preferable to no loaf. The question isn't success or failure in terms of getting major policy changes through. It's how much will they need to compromise to get it through.

Just as important as these major policy changes is, quite simply, how much does the economy turn around and how quickly will it happen? The longer it goes and the worse it gets, the more weight it is on any president's shoulders and popularity. The faster it turns around, the lighter the load becomes and the more buoyant a president's numbers get.

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