They're starting to wave back again.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Obama's Higher Approval Is Good for Everyone

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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Here's some good news: Barack Obama’s approval ratings are heading up again. It isn't clear by how much. The more tentative “moderate smoothing” option at HuffPollster has him picking up just a single percentage point over several months, but the quicker-to-react “less smoothing” option gives him a gain of about two and a half percentage points over the last eight weeks, a solid improvement.

While this is good news for Obama and for Democrats, that's not what I’m talking about. It’s good news for the political system.

It shows that even in a polarized age, presidential approval and probably election results are still closely tied to reality rather than to partisan spin. That is, the likely cause of Obama’s better approval numbers is improving economic conditions. The numbers on GDP, jobs and more have been steadily better in the last six months or so. This has finally countered the general feeling that the economy was still stuck in recession. Gallup’s “economic confidence index” recently crossed into positive territory for the first time since the recession.

So first the economy improves, then people eventually believe it has, and then they gradually reward the president for how he's handling his job.

This may sound obvious, but plenty of people have doubted it would happen, pointing to the increased role of partisan media such as Fox News and the evening programming on MSNBC.  Since many moderates and weak partisans now get much of their news from party-aligned sources, it seems possible that public opinion will be less responsive to events than when “neutral” news sources dominated. Moreover, with increased partisanship in the electorate, some have theorized that Obama and future presidents will be permanently stuck in the midrange approval ratings Obama has maintained since fall 2009.

No, a small uptick that has yet to reach 50 percent can’t disprove this theory. But it does suggest that we can expect significant future increases (and retreats) as people react to objective economic conditions and other events, with presidential approval following.

This is important because it means the electoral incentive for politicians to produce good outcomes for the nation overall  (and avoid bad ones) remains strong. Just because politicians have that motivation hardly guarantees they will succeed. But it sure beats removing that incentive.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at