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Question: How Obama's Approval Can Spike

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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Commenter Jon Lipe asks: 

Obama seems to have a polling floor of 40%, made up of his real base: Young people, liberals, and minorities. Bush, on the other hand, seemed to crash through that 40% mark in a similar point in his term before reaching Nixonian lows in the 20s. Why is that? Is Obama's base bigger than Bush's? More loyal to him/Democrats? Or was Obama's situation never as dire as Bush's?

Another reader, Kylopod, meanwhile, says Barack Obama has a lower ceiling than George W. Bush, who reached record-high Gallup approval levels after the Sept. 11 attacks. 

It’s true Obama has had a high floor and a low ceiling so far. Only Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy had higher Gallup approval lows than Obama’s worst-ever 38 percent, and only Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon never exceeded Obama’s 69 percent peak  (sorry, folks, Reagan wasn’t an especially popular president).

That doesn't mean it's a hard floor. While it’s impossible to prove, a new recession would almost certainly plunge Obama to well below 40 percent. So would a war with significant U.S. casualties. Or, for that matter, a big scandal; Obama’s administration has been remarkably scandal-free.

At the same time, there hasn’t been much sustained good news, either on foreign policy and, until recently, on the economy.

Could Obama ever rival Bush’s high point?

Republicans have behaved as if it was always safe for them to criticize whatever Obama did (the main exception being when Osama bin Laden was killed). The assumption is that Republican voters will invariably take their side and oppose him, and swing voters will conclude that the president's views are controversial and divide the nation.

But this strategy may have limits. If Republicans continue to say the economy is ruined when employment is surging, or if they criticize the president during a foreign crisis, or if they attack wildly popular programs, they risk a backlash. Or they may worry about a backlash, whether those fears are realistic or not. 

Since paranoia trumps rational thinking for most politicians most of the time -- they aren't always going to follow their party's line if they sense their own careers are at risk -- Republicans could, in the right circumstances, wind up supporting the president despite themselves. That could then lead to a strong approval spike for the president.

Yes, the conservatives' closed-information feedback loop might make Republican politicians less likely to perceive a danger, but it might not hold in all cases. 

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

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net