Can Obama Win on Likability?

Americans think the president is a swell guy, but they don't approve of the job he is doing. What's more important for him in 2012?

Obama shaking hands on bus tour - Jason Reed : Reuters - banner.jpg

On its face, the idea that an incumbent officeholder can be reelected when more Americans disapprove of his or her job performance than approve seems unlikely. After all, if voters don't like the job you're doing, why would they give you the chance to keep doing it?

But President Obama, whose job-approval ratings are mired well south of 50 percent, has an important factor breaking his way as he seeks another term: Americans still overwhelmingly like the guy.

There is a partial correlation, pollsters say, between a politician's job-approval ratings and favorability ratings. Favorability ratings generally represent a ceiling, above which job-approval ratings do not rise. And poor job-approval ratings, over the long term, can prove a drag on an incumbent's favorability ratings. A short-term drop in approval ratings doesn't portend a corresponding drop in personal favorability--but when favorable numbers begin to descend, it's an ominous sign for anyone planning to run for another term.

Polling consistently shows that the majority of Americans view Obama favorably, even while they increasingly disagree with his job performance. There is a nuance to voter sentiment, pollsters say, one that provides Obama with a path to reelection. But the disconnect between the two numbers, if it ever shrinks, could also become a leading indicator that the president's chances for a second term are headed south.

"I consistently find in focus groups that swing voters like Obama personally. But they feel let down by his policies. They believe he is working hard, but going in the wrong direction," said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster at Public Opinion Strategies. Obama "is in danger, though, of becoming Jimmy Carter: Likeable, but unable to lead the country out of difficult times."

Americans are a forgiving people. Even when a voter's opinion of the president's job performance is sour, if that voter views the president favorably on a personal level, their opinion of his job-performance number can rise.

Bill Clinton offered a clear example; in 1994, Clinton's approval rating dropped to a low of 38 percent, as measured by the Pew Research Center. Clinton endured a period, from March 1994 to October 1995, during which his approval rating hit 50 percent only once. And yet, during that same period, his approval rating stayed strong, starting around 58 percent and ending, after only a single dip below the 50 percent mark, at 56 percent in January 1996. Beginning with that January poll, Clinton's approval rating rebounded; by November, when he asked voters for a second term, his job-approval rate stood at 57 percent.

Throughout Clinton's term, his personal-favorability rating dropped below 50 percent only twice in Pew surveys. Even at the height of the impeachment debate, after Clinton had admitted to an affair, his approval ratings stayed in the high 50s. So long as Americans liked Clinton personally, his approval rating could rebound.

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A high personal-favorability rating can bolster a lousy job-approval rating. But once the personal rating falls, rehabilitating a president's professional image becomes much more difficult. Voters can decide they're simply done rooting for a president to succeed, as they did with Clinton's successor.

A string of bad news and federal government failures--starting with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the spiraling chaos of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and political problems in Washington--sent George W. Bush's job-performance rating plummeting. His performance rating hit 50 percent in January 2005, just after he was reelected, and never reached the halfway mark again. The number of Americans who disapproved of his performance hit 52 percent in early September 2005, just after Katrina; it didn't fall below 52 percent for the rest of his tenure.

Image credit: Jason Reed/Reuters

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