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Obama Surge Gives Democrats Reason for Hope

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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President Barack Obama’s surging approval rating is becoming a major plot line of the 2016 election.

Obama has reached 53 percent approval from Gallup, a three-year high, and he’s been at or above 50 percent in that survey for four weeks.

QuickTake Perils of Polling

HuffPollster's aggregate of all current polls gives Obama an average approval rating of 49.2 percent,compared with 47.3 percent disapproval. He bottomed out in the first week of December at 44.1 percent, according to that estimate, so he’s gained five percentage points over an almost four-month sustained rally.

That should help Hillary Clinton’s chances in November. Current presidential approval, along with some measure of economic performance, both have strong effects on general election voting. They aren’t perfect predictors, but they seem to make a difference.

In the Gallup survey, Obama is now doing a little bit better than Ronald Reagan was in late March 1988. He’s well behind Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton during their final years in the White House, and far ahead of George W. Bush.

No one has a good explanation for Obama’s rising approval rating. There’s no historical pattern of presidential approval improving during the primaries and caucuses of his final year in office. There seems to be a faint echo of the presidential approval surge in “right track/wrong track” polling, but it’s a smaller change, and it’s not clear what the relationship between the two measures might be. (That is, it could be that people think that the nation is in better shape and so they give credit to the president, but it’s just as likely that people who come to like the president conclude that the nation may be better off.)

I’ve heard suggestions that Donald Trump makes Obama look good by comparison, but there’s no real evidence.

My best guess is that it's a delayed effect of (relative) peace and prosperity. In the 1990s, it took some time for peace and prosperity to boost Bill Clinton's approval numbers; there could be something similar at work now, though at a lower level. 

At any rate, this spike for Obama does prove, contrary to what some have said, that such improvements are possible even for presidents late in their final terms. And the election is still some time away, so his approval rates could surge higher -- or come down.                                                                                                                                                                            

With Obama no longer looking like a mild drag on the Democrats, they may now have a very slight edge in the 2016 presidential election. If Republicans pick an unpopular candidate (Ted Cruz) or a potentially awful one (Trump), a Democratic landslide becomes increasingly plausible.

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

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net