Why Both Parties Will Lose in the Fiscal Battles

They’ll take a toll on the approval ratings of both the president and the Republicans.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 23: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama speaks while meeting with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on September 23, 2013 in New York City. Both Obama and Jonathan expressed condolences to Kenya for the attacks in a Nairobi mall with Obama saying it was "terrible outrage" and said the United States was providing all the cooperation it could to Kenya. Both are in town for the United Nations General Assembly. 
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Charlie Cook
Sept. 26, 2013, 4:05 p.m.

With the pleth­ora of polls com­ing out these days, in­clud­ing at least two pres­id­en­tial job-ap­prov­al rat­ings re­leased daily, it’s easy to be­come numb to the non­stop num­bers. Some­times it’s help­ful to step back and look at a pres­id­ent’s rat­ings over time, both in the con­text of where his ap­prov­al num­bers have been and how his rat­ings com­pare with those of oth­er White House oc­cu­pants at this point in their pres­id­en­cies.

In the ma­jor polls re­leased so far for the month of Septem­ber, Pres­id­ent Obama’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ings have av­er­aged 45 per­cent ap­prov­al, 50 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al. In poll­ster par­lance, that is “un­der­wa­ter” or “up­side down” by 5 per­cent­age points. In­di­vidu­ally, the Septem­ber polls have ranged from a low of 40 per­cent ap­prov­al (with 54 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al), ac­cord­ing to the Fox News poll, to a high of 47 per­cent ap­prov­al (and 47 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al) in the ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post sur­vey. All of the oth­er polls have shown ap­prov­al rat­ings in a nar­row band of 44 per­cent to 46 per­cent. Gal­lup found 44 per­cent ap­prov­al (47 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al) in its track­ing poll for the week of Sept. 16-22, and the most re­cent Pew Re­search/USA Today poll also showed a 44 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing (with dis­ap­prov­al at 49 per­cent). Both CNN and the NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al sur­vey had ap­prov­al rat­ings of 45 per­cent (with 52 per­cent and 50 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al, re­spect­ively), and the CBS News/New York Times poll came in with 46 per­cent for both ap­prov­al and dis­ap­prov­al. A Bloomberg poll Wed­nes­day re­vealed ap­prov­al of 45 per­cent (with 49 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al). In cases like this, it’s use­ful to bor­row the Olympic meth­od of judging: Throw out the out­liers — the high and low — and av­er­age the rest, which gives you 44.8 per­cent.

Gal­lup’s 44 per­cent ap­prov­al num­bers for Obama are on the low end com­pared with Gal­lup’s ap­prov­al rat­ings for oth­er post-World War II pres­id­ents at this point in their second terms. George W. Bush was vir­tu­ally the same, at 45 per­cent; Bill Clin­ton was 14 points high­er than Obama at 58 per­cent; Dwight Eis­en­hower was at 59 per­cent; and Ron­ald Re­agan topped the list at 63 per­cent. Giv­en the combo terms of John Kennedy/Lyn­don John­son and Richard Nix­on/Ger­ald Ford, their second-term num­bers are not ter­ribly use­ful for com­par­at­ive pur­poses. Re­agan’s num­bers re­mained ro­bust un­til al­most two years in­to his second term, just after the 1986 midterm elec­tions when the Ir­an-Con­tra af­fair blew up, send­ing his ap­prov­al rat­ings in­to a nose­dive. While Re­pub­lic­ans suffered tough losses in that 1986 midterm elec­tion, the de­feats were con­cen­trated in the Sen­ate, not in the House. The losses were not par­tic­u­larly re­lated to Re­agan; it was just that there were a large num­ber of very weak fresh­man GOP sen­at­ors, elec­ted on Re­agan’s coat­tails in 1980, who got slaughtered when they had to stand for reelec­tion on their own in 1986. Many of them could nev­er have been elec­ted ex­cept for the wave that swept them in. Their losses that year were not so much a re­flec­tion of the party or of Re­agan, but rather of their own weak polit­ic­al cir­cum­stances. The House, a bet­ter ba­ro­met­er of a pres­id­ent’s elect­or­al im­pact, was little changed in 1986.

Gal­lup’s Jef­frey Jones, look­ing at Obama’s monthly rat­ings, found that the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al rat­ing since he was reelec­ted last year topped out at 53 per­cent in Novem­ber, the month he won his second term, and then began a gradu­al drift down­ward to its cur­rent 44 per­cent level. Jones looked at the com­pos­i­tion of Obama’s ap­prov­al num­bers and found that since Novem­ber, he has dropped 13 points among Demo­crats, from 91 per­cent in Novem­ber to 78 per­cent so far in Septem­ber, and has fallen 12 points among in­de­pend­ents, from 49 per­cent in Novem­ber to 37 per­cent this month. The fluc­tu­ation in ap­prov­al among Re­pub­lic­ans was min­im­al: In only one month, May, did Obama’s ap­prov­al reach 14 per­cent; each of the oth­er months saw levels between 11 per­cent and 13 per­cent. It would be hard to drop very far when you are start­ing out so low.

What was most in­ter­est­ing in Jones’s re­port was that Obama’s low­est monthly ap­prov­al rat­ings among mem­bers of his own party oc­curred dur­ing battles with Con­gress over the debt lim­it between Au­gust and Oc­to­ber 2011, when he av­er­aged just a 77 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing among Demo­crats. His peak monthly job-ap­prov­al rat­ing among Demo­crats was 91 per­cent last Novem­ber. Jones spec­u­lated that the lead-up to the up­com­ing fisc­al battles over fund­ing the gov­ern­ment and rais­ing the debt ceil­ing, along with cri­ti­cism over the pres­id­ent’s hand­ling of the situ­ation in Syr­ia, have likely con­trib­uted to the de­cline in ap­prov­al among Demo­crats. In my judg­ment, it is more likely the lat­ter than the former. Obama’s ap­prov­al num­bers dropped the most among Demo­crats and in­de­pend­ents, the groups among whom he had fur­ther to fall.

In the up­com­ing fisc­al show­downs over the con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion and the debt ceil­ing, Re­pub­lic­ans are greatly ex­posed and could come out of this badly dam­aged. But as we saw in 2011, in a fight like this one, every­one can end up look­ing bad. In fact, the way it is shap­ing up, that’s a pretty de­cent bet.

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