Why Has Obama's Approval Held Steady Despite the Oil Spill?

A recent batch of polls reveal that President Obama's job approval has remained steady over the last two months despite his presiding over the biggest environmental catastrophe in our nation's history.  Why might that be?

First, consider the evidence. Checking realclearpolitics.com's presidential job approval index of major polls, Obama's job approval on June 18 stood at 48.1 percent, virtually equal to his 47.9 percent rating on April 23, the day of the spill. His disapproval rating has also changed very little on average, moving to 47.4 on June 18 from 46.9 on April 23.

Tom Bevan at realcearpolitics.com notes that on specific questions regarding the oil spill, Obama's rating has shifted recently in a decidedly negative direction. So why isn't that reflected in his overall job approval ratings?

Two reasons suggest themselves. First, Obama has BP to thank for his job approval stability.  BP has primary responsibility for the spill and response, and the blame is readily shifted to them -- as Obama has done.  A large multinational corporation is a convenient presidential punching bag.  The public has by now learned much about the spill and apparently had decided that Obama does not merit sufficient blame to deserve lower job approval.

Contrast that pattern with the Iraq war, in which George W. Bush was the instigator and held direct responsibility in the public's mind for the conflict and subsequent occupation.  As the bloody occupation drug on, citizens fixed blame squarely on Bush.

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz performed a recent analysis of Bush's job approval ratings and found that his handling of Hurricane Katrina did not accelerate the decline in job approval that had already set in during early 2005.  Rather, the increasing job disapproval proceeded at the same pace as before Katrina.  The hurricane may have kept the trend going, but the trend began before Katrina and persisted long after Katrina.  That points to the conduct of the Iraq occupation as a more likely cause of the decline.

Second,  citizens have many grounds upon which to judge a president's conduct in office, and the BP spill, with Obama's attenuated responsibility for the disaster, seems not to be determinative among all of the factors an individual might consider in weighing a job approval verdict for the president.  There's also the economy, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, health care, and a variety of other issues that may figure into an individual's calculations.

The news for Obama on the issues just listed has not been good lately, and that is a greater threat to his presidency than BP alone.  Once a critical mass of disapproval on a variety of grounds arises, the president's job approval will decline further. This contrasts somewhat with the situation of his predecessor, for whom the Iraq issue became a dominant negative driving down his popularity. The BP mess thus far hasn't had the same effect upon Obama's job approval.

It's striking that Obama's job approval has not reached the lows of Ronald Reagan during the 1982 recession.  Then, the new president fell to 41 percent approval in a July 1982 Gallup poll.  Obama now averages seven percent higher than that.  Has Obama reached the floor of his job approval?  If so, that's very good news for the White House, because with his approval in the high forties, he remains a competitive candidate for reelection.  Over the next several month's, we'll be "testing the bottom," and the results of that test will determine the fate of Obama's reelection prospects.

Presented by

Steven Schier

Steven E. Schier is the Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Washington Monthly, Brookings Review and other publications. Visit his Web site here .

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