Obama's Polling Turnaround

After a year of political struggle and deflating poll numbers, things seem to be turning around for President Obama.

His approval ratings have improved over the past couple weeks, recovering to break-even territory for the first time since June. Among major pollsters, his average approval rating is 47.5 percent according to Pollster.com; his average disapproval, 47.8. His rating hasn't been as high since May.

Obama hit rock bottom quite recently, as Mark Blumenthal notes--in November, when two and a half percent fewer (45.1 percent, on average) approved of him. He's improved by five percentage points since early December, according to Gallup, ascending from 43 percent to 48.

In general, people feel better about the president.

Voters of all stripes are optimistic about the second two years of his term, according to a new poll from Marist College, which finds a plurality of Democrats, Republicans, and independents all predicting Obama will do a better job in the next two years than he did in the last two:

Marist Obama poll.png
More people see him favorably, too (a different measure than job approval). Since early November, the number of people who generally like Obama has risen by five percent, according to Associated Press polls.

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A movement of several percentage points in one poll isn't much to get excited about, but the general uplift seems to be happening across the board. Depending on the firm or news agency, President Obama's approval has varied among them by as much as seven percentage points in the last three days alone, but his upswing in approval rating is happening in the aggregate, and the two most regular polling firms, Gallup and Rasmussen, both show him improving.

It's tough to know why, exactly, people are happier with Obama, seemingly across the board. The best we can do is throw out a few possibilities:

  •  He's mastered the job. President Obama has been president for a while. People learn how to do things better as they do them more, so it makes sense that after two years of initially bumpy going as he settled into the job, Obama would carry some lessons into the next two. He's been president for about 17,350 hours, far exceeding Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule for attainment of mastery.
  • The midterms helped. Maybe Obama's polling turnaround shows that Americans want divided government. Maybe it shows they like Republican policies. Maybe it shows they want compromise. Regardless, the timing of Obama's turnaround--better numbers since rock bottom in November--syncs with the timing of the GOP's House takeover, which forced Obama to publicly reflect on some of his failings and re-dedicate himself to compromise. It's the biggest game-changer on the board, so to speak, and it will mean new restrictions for the president, different bills he'll sign, and maybe a new M.O.
  • People liked the tax compromise. Blasted by liberals, condemned as spineless by Democratic partisans, Obama sold his Bush-tax-cut deal to the public with some of the most forceful, common-sense explanations of policy and the political constraints that surround it that we've seen him give as president. As the drama unfolded, Obama had the public on his side, according to polls. Three days before he signed the deal, Gallup showed 49 percent support for and 32 percent opposition to the deal. With Democrats and Republicans in Congress both noting (sometimes loudly) that the compromise wasn't ideal, Obama wound up as the rightful owner of this popular deal after cutting it in the first place.

  • The historically busy lame-duck. Confronted with a new political landscape, Obama and Congress managed to pull off the most productive lame-duck legislative session since at least World War II. Rank partisanship and Washington's ineffectiveness were daily topics of discussion in political news, but Obama worked with Republicans and Democrats alike to pass not only the tax-cut deal, but also the New START treaty with Russia, a repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' an FDA/food-safety bill, the "doc fix" adjustment to Medicare reimbursement rates for physicians, and a 9/11 first-responders health bill. Policy aside, the rush of bills was encouraging, as Washington's political apparati appeared actually to be functioning.

  • The Giffords shooting had something to do with it. This is pretty unlikely, I think. While it is a major, major event in the world of politics, it's unclear that the tragedy in Arizona would lead more people to say they approve of the president. He gave his Tucson memorial-service speech on Wednesday, and no one has polled since then. It's possible that people liked the speech, and that any sense of patriotism that's arisen in response to this tragedy will be reflected in Obama's numbers. But while a handful of firms have polled since the shooting, we only have a couple of surveys that didn't begin before the shooting happened. So, on top of the shakiness of the psychological connection, the data aren't here yet for us to accurately judge.