History has taught us that the fate of the president's party in a midterm election, especially that first midterm, is intimately tied to his job approval ratings. Right now, President Obama's are great, yet the latest Diageo/Hotline poll shows some weak spots that, if they grow, could bring them crashing down.
During the last 27 years, when a first-term president has a job approval rating under 50 percent, his party has suffered big losses in the House. Ronald Reagan came into the first week of November with an approval rating 43 percent, and his party lost 26 seats. In 1994, when Democrats lost 52 seats (and control of the House and Senate), Bill Clinton's approval rating was 46 percent. If, however, the approval rating is over 50 percent, the president's party either gained seats (George W. Bush was at 63 percent, Republicans picked up three seats), or has kept the losses to a minimum (George H.W. Bush was at 58 percent and Republicans lost eight seats.)
Right now, most polls show Obama around 60 percent in job approval rating; the Diageo/Hotline poll has him at 67 percent. To be sure, many presidents enjoy something of a honeymoon with voters during their first months in office. At this point in their first terms, Jimmy Carter was at 70 percent, Reagan was at 60 percent and Bush 41 was at 56 percent. Yet, to bend the old Army slogan, he's done more before his 100th day than most presidents try to do in four years. To have fought this many battles and still be so popular is quite remarkable.
Yet, as many have noted in recent days, the latest polling shows that he's more popular than his party or his proposals. Since the January Diageo/Hotline survey, congressional Democrats have seen a 7-point increase in their disapproval ratings, and their lead in the congressional ballot test has shrunk dramatically to 6 points from 24. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's unfavorable ratings have also gone up 9 points, and she carries an overall negative rating from independents.
This shouldn't be all that surprising. After all, Obama's popularity has always been rooted in the conceptual (hope and change), rather than the specific. This, in essence, has allowed voters to cut him a lot of slack.
His ability to stay above the fray is also a factor. His style thus far has been to paint broad brushstrokes on things like the budget, stimulus and health care and let Congress fill in the details -- and as we all know, it's the details that cause the most friction and carry the most political cost.
Even so, there are plenty of factors that suggest Obama can get dragged down into that dangerous sub-50 percent approval category.
• Voters say they feel confident in his programs, but not overwhelmingly so. While 64 percent of voters in our poll said they were confident that Obama and his team can turn the economy around, just 19 percent said they were "very confident."
• The 31 percent of voters who say they are paying attention to the various economic plans in Washington "very closely" are the most pessimistic about Obama's economic programs, as well as Obama personally. For example, a bigger percentage of these voters who oppose Obama's $75 billion plan to help prevent foreclosures are in the "very closely" category than those who are paying attention "somewhat closely." Just 27 percent of those who give Obama a positive job approval rating are in this "very closely" category, while 42 percent of those who say they disapprove of the way he's handling his job are in this group. In other words, there's evidence that those who are the closest followers of the details are those who are more disapproving of the job Obama's doing.
It's important to note that this group of voters is wealthier, better educated and slightly more Republican. Yet, remember, Obama did very well with these voters in 2008. He split with John McCain at 49 percent among those making $100,000 or more, and carried both college educated and post-graduate voters.
• Obama's approval ratings among Democrats have been on the rise since January, with Pollster.com pegging him at 90.6 percent. But his disapproval ratings among Republicans and independents have been rising as well. According to Pollster.com, his disapproval ratings among independents is 26.1 percent and among Republicans it's 54.8 percent.
• Finally, voters are less supportive of more government involvement in the economy than they were just a month ago. In January, 55 percent of voters were supportive; today it's at 49 percent. Meanwhile, the number of people who say they think it's a bad idea rose 8 points from 37 percent to 45 percent.
So, how long does Obama's glow survive? No one knows for sure, though many peg the summer as make-or-break. Until then, the reality is that the more scrutiny these programs get -- and the more closely the details are followed -- the harder it will be for him to keep those ratings up.