Where Obama Has—and Has Not—Recovered

And what the president's changing fortunes could mean for the 2016 contest.

President Obama heads into his State of the Union address tonight enjoying reviving approval ratings from key groups in his coalition but still facing entrenched skepticism from the older and blue-collar whites who were crucial to GOP victories last fall.

In the latest national Pew Research Center survey released last week, Obama's overall approval rating rebounded to 47 percent, with 48 percent disapproving. That was a significant improvement over the 42-43 percent rating Pew had recorded for him in each of its surveys from last August through last December; the Edison Research exit poll on Election Day last November found that 44 percent of voters approved of his performance.

Some other new surveys also show an uptick for Obama since then. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Tuesday placed his approval rating at 50 percent, his best showing in that survey since May 2013. The latest CBS News poll put Obama's approval at 46 percent.

The Pew results are representative of the shifts that have allowed Obama to regain some ground after suffering ratings that lagged through much of 2014. In the Pew polling, Obama tumbled to the lowest approval rating of his presidency in a survey from late October through early November 2013, when he sank to just 41 percent. Comparing the latest survey with that earlier measurement, based on detailed results provided by Pew, shows revealing patterns in where Obama has recovered--and where he has not.

Compared to the fall 2013 poll, Obama's approval rating has edged up slightly among Hispanics (from 60 to 63 percent), and increased more robustly among African-Americans (82 to 90 percent) and whites younger than 50 (from 28 to 37 percent). His biggest gain has come among college-educated white women, from 41 percent then to 53 percent now. The modern Democratic coalition relies heavily on Hispanics, African-Americans, and college-educated white women, as well as whites at the younger end of the age range.

Strikingly, Obama has also regained substantial ground with college-educated white men, generally a Republican-leaning group, rising from a 35 percent approval rating among them in the earlier poll to 45 percent in the latest.

By contrast, Obama has improved little--and even lost ground--with the other key components of the white electorate. Among white men without a college education, consistently the group most skeptical of him, Obama's approval rating remains mired at 32 percent, up only slightly from 28 percent in the fall 2013 poll. Since that survey, the president has actually lost ground among white women without a college degree, falling from 27 percent approval in fall 2013 to just 23 percent now. Among whites older than 50, he's followed a similar trajectory, slipping from 33 percent approval then to 31 percent now. All three of those groups gave thumping majorities both to Mitt Romney in 2012 and to Republican congressional candidates in 2014, exit polls found.

(The ABC News/Washington Post survey released this week generally found similar patterns. It also recorded a big gain for Obama among Hispanics, found his approval reaching 45 percent among college-educated white men and captured continuing resistance among noncollege white men (just 37 percent approval) and blue-collar white woman (only 26 percent). It varied from Pew in showing more-modest numbers among college-educated white women (just 43 percent approval) but tracks the other survey in finding the same basic gap between his support among white- and blue-collar whites.

Obama's improvement among white-collar whites appears rooted in brightening assessments of the economy, and the impact of his economic policies. In the new survey, 47 percent of college-educated white men say they believe Obama's economic policies have improved conditions, while 26 percent said he has made things worse. That was an almost complete reversal from June 2013, the last time Pew asked that question: in that poll, only 23 percent of those white-collar white men said Obama's policies were improving conditions, while 47 percent said they had made things worse. (In all cases, the rest said that his policies either had no effect or they didn't know the impact.)

College-educated white women, the portion of the white electorate generally most favorable to Democrats, were more positive than their male counterparts in 2013, and have grown even more optimistic since. In June 2013, those college-educated white women split narrowly, 43-36, on whether Obama's policies had made the economy better or worse; now they break toward the positive side by fully 2 to 1 (46-23).

Since June 2013, African-Americans have grown even more positive in their assessment of Obama's economic impact (from 61 points positive over negative then to 71 points now) and Hispanics have varied little (from 34 percent net positive then to 30 now). Whites under 50 have moved from highly negative to about even (15 points net worse over better then, now net 1 point positive) and even noncollege-educated white men have softened (from 30 points net negative in 2013 to 7 now). So have whites older than 50 (net negative of 12 points today compared to 26 then). But noncollege-educated white women are even more down on Obama's impact today than back then (29 points net negative compared to 22).

The gap is even more striking on another measure of economic attitudes. Asked in the latest poll if their income was rising faster, staying about even, or falling behind their cost of living, the blue-collar and older whites offered by far the most pessimistic assessments. About three-fifths of both whites older than 50 and noncollege-educated white men--and nearly two-thirds of noncollege white women--said they are still losing ground. By contrast, a majority of college-educated white men and women said they were either holding steady or gaining ground. Whites under 50, African-Americans, and Hispanics all tilted toward losing ground, but only slightly.

Whatever the economy's condition, African-Americans, Hispanics, and college-educated white women--and, to a lesser extent, younger whites--are all drawn to Obama and Democrats on other areas, particularly social issues such as gay marriage and immigration. But improving assessments of the economy, and Obama's impact on it, may help Democrats solidify that drift for the presidential race in 2016 among those four elements of their national coalition.

By contrast, so long as blue-collar and older whites remain generally downbeat about their personal finances, that pessimism seems guaranteed to reinforce the ideological drift that has carried them securely into the GOP camp. (In 2014, Democrats carried just 36 percent of whites over 45, and only about one-third of noncollege-educated whites.) The cross-pressured group on this shifting landscape is college-educated white men, who have shown greater ideological affinity for small-government Republicans in recent elections but are displaying increasing satisfaction with the economy's performance under Obama.

If Hillary Clinton seeks the presidency in 2016, there's a strong possibility that both cultural affinity and economic satisfaction would allow her to improve on Obama's relatively lackluster 2012 performance with college-educated white women. That would increase the pressure on the Republican nominee to not only maintain the GOP's dominance among blue-collar and older whites but also prevent any meaningful defections from white-collar white men--some of whose brightening economic situations may be softening their skepticism about the president.