Steady as he goes.

Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Obama's Approval Rating Is So ... Stable

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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How voters feel about Barack Obama is probably more important to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election than anything the candidates to succeed him say or do. That means it's worth asking this question: Why are his approval ratings so flat?

The Gallup Organization had him at 46 percent this week. Same as last week. And nine of the last 10 weeks. In fact, he has been at 45 percent, 46 percent or 47 percent approval in every weekly sounding since early May.  It isn't just Gallup's survey. HuffPollster's estimates are similar. They have hardly budged in months, drifting down from a 2015 peak of 46 in February to 44.9 now.

A longer time frame shows even more stability in his ratings. Obama’s best-ever Gallup score was 69 percent, the third lowest “best” ranking in polling history (going back through Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were slightly lower). That was in Obama's first week in the White House.  

His worst-ever score was 38 percent in September 2014. Only Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy had higher “worsts.”

The range of 31 percentage points ties Ike's for the smallest swing in popularity. But Eisenhower never had a flat six-month stretch to match what Obama is currently showing.  Other presidents with small overall ranges -- Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton -- surged up and down a lot more than Obama has.  

Why? One theory blames political polarization. Perhaps, even more than used to be the case, voters in a president’s party will approve of what he’s done, regardless of what happens, while most voters in the other party will disapprove, no matter what. If that was the key, it would mean that approval ratings could no longer tell us whether people thought the president was doing a good job. They would only tell us whether respondents were partisan Democrats or partisan Republicans. 

But we didn't see those things happen with Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, who tied Truman’s 65 percentage-point record for the biggest swing. (Bush had 90 percent approval in September 2001, the highest ever recorded for a U.S. president; he bottomed out at 25 percent three times in October 2008.) Partisan polarization may have increased during Obama’s presidency, but it isn't enough to explain the sharp difference between his approval swings and Bush's.

I think Obama's stable numbers are the result of something else: events, or the lack of them. Nothing has pushed his approval much higher or lower. There has been no new recession, but no strong recovery from the last one. Casualties from foreign wars are way down, but the U.S. isn't exactly at peace either.  

If the economy was booming the way it was in the mid-1980s or mid-1990s, Obama's approval ratings might be in the high 50s or better, rivaling Ronald Reagan's and Bill Clinton's in those eras. If a recession hits before leaves office, he could wind up as unpopular as Bush was. 

If, however, it's just polarization, then presidents could no longer appeal to the other party's voters and no longer risk losing their own partisan supporters. The incentives for presidents to deliver good results for everyone would be much weaker. So a lot is riding on whether Obama's flat numbers are just a fluke or if they indicate a real change in U.S. politics. 

  1. Gallup also publishes rolling three-day results, and those have wandered around a little more. Obama was at 49 percent in the most recent one, yet he has also fallen into the low 40s sometimes. But the weeklong averages have been right at or about 46.

  2. Gallup's numbers, if anything, probably exaggerate Obama's variability.  The pollster moved to daily tracking in January 2009, meaning we have many more observations for Obama. Previously, we may have missed a peak or bottom for a president because Gallup didn't happen to look at that point. There are also far more opportunities for a false high or low with Obama because of all the extra soundings.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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