Blame performance, not polarization.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

What Obama's Ratings Really Mean

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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There’s talk this week about a Barack Obama rally with the pundits. That is awfully difficult to see in his approval numbers so far, unless you squint real hard. Paul Waldman at the American Prospect argues, however, that whatever commentators might say, there’s probably a hard cap around 55 percent approval for the president. Indeed, Waldman makes an argument I’ve seen before: This is a “semi-permanent change” and no president is going to regularly top 55 percent in these party-polarized times.

I call bunk.

As Waldman points out, Bill Clinton regularly exceeded 55 percent; in fact, his Gallup second-term average was 60 percent. Ronald Reagan, too, spent the first half of his second term around 65 percent approval before Iran-Contra ruined his popularity. And of course George W. Bush broke the record for approval after the Sept. 11 attacks, and remained above 60 percent for most of the next two years. On the down side, extreme partisanship didn’t prevent Bush’s approval ratings from falling below 30 percent by the end of his second term.

It’s true that partisanship has increased somewhat since the 1980s, and even since the late 1990s. But not by all that much

What mainly explains Obama’s amazingly steady (and generally mediocre) approval ratings isn’t polarization. It’s his performance, and events. He’s been president during a deep recession, even if most people blamed it on his predecessor, and then during a disappointing but real recovery. There was no new recession to send his approval ratings plunging, but no economic boom, either. No terrible scandals, but enough small ones and the (short-term, but high-profile) botched rollout of No disastrous foreign misadventures, but no clear-cut victories, the death of Osama bin Laden notwithstanding.

It’s possible that perceptions of the economy and credit for it, which tend to lag improving economic conditions, could change that equation enough to push Obama into positive territory in his last two years. A larger sustained late-presidency rally, however, would be unlikely -- not because of polarization, but just because it’s hard to imagine what events would change things this late in the game. Obama isn’t going to top 55 percent approval barring unforeseeable events. But the next president certainly can.

  1. Reagan’s same-point approval rating is only about five percentage points higher than Obama's, and Reagan was still falling at this point; he bottomed out in Gallup at 43 percent in March 1987.

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