What's Behind Obama's Rebounding Approval Rating?

Increasing optimism about their financial futures has led more Americans to view the president in a positive light.

Lifted by improving economic expectations, President Obama's approval rating in the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll has rebounded to its highest level in nearly two years. But even with that recovery, Americans remain split almost evenly on both the impact of his economic policies and his overall performance, the survey found.

These political assessments closely track the trend of modest improvement tempered by continued unease that the survey found in attitudes about the economy. As we reported yesterday, while Americans' assessments of their own personal financial situations and the national economy have clearly brightened, unease about America's economic performance—particularly in generating rising living standards—remains widespread.

The poll returned a similar verdict of restrained improvement on many measures. On the broadest question, the share of adults who described the country as "headed in the right direction" reached its highest level in the poll since immediately after Obama's reelection in November 2012. But even so, just 33 percent said the country is heading in the right direction, while 54 percent described it as "seriously off on the wrong track."

Similarly, in the new survey, 46 percent of adults said they approved of Obama's performance as president while 48 percent disapproved. That was a marked improvement from the previous poll in October 2014, when only 41 percent gave him positive marks. The new survey placed Obama's approval rating at its highest level since June 2013 (when it reached 48 percent).

Improving economic expectations clearly are benefiting Obama. Among the 44 percent of adults who said they expected their financial situation to improve over the next year, 56 percent approved of his performance while 38 percent disapproved. The 46 percent who expect their financial situation to remain unchanged tilted against him: 40 percent approved and 54 percent disapproved. And with the 8 percent who thought their situation would deteriorate, just 24 percent approved, while 68 percent disapproved.

Those stark divisions suggest that Obama's approval rating could rise at least somewhat further if sustained growth continues to increase the share of Americans upbeat about their economic future.

Compared with last October, the new survey found Obama's approval rating jumping 7 percentage points among both Democrats and independents, as well as 8 points among minorities (reaching 66 percent with them, his best showing since September 2013). Mark Buck, a Native-American independent who operates an excavating business near Toledo, Ohio, gave the president good marks not only on the economy—his business, Buck says, "is really starting to take off pretty well"—but also the passage of his health reform law. "Helping people out with health care is a big thing, because people have struggled, like myself," says Buck. After a construction accident in 2004, he continued, "For 10 years, nobody would sell me insurance. Fortunately, now I can get that and finally get my checkups … without being so concerned about spending all of that money out of pocket to keep up with my health."

Obama's gains with whites were much more muted: He stood at 37 percent with them in the new survey, up only 3 percentage points since last fall. His approval rating among whites has exceeded 41 percent in the Heartland poll only twice since 2009.

Among whites, Obama notched his largest gains among the group traditionally most receptive to Democrats: white women holding at least a four-year college degree. His approval rating among those upscale women spiked to 53 percent, up from 45 percent last fall; since 2010, Obama has ranked higher with college white women only once. Cindy Harrison, who works for the federal courts in St. Louis, is one of those women mostly positive on the president. "I remember before he took office, when things were going in the tank and Republicans weren't doing anything," she says. "He came in and took the bull by the horns." These college white women, whose support for Obama declined in 2012, could be critical to Democratic hopes of succeeding him in 2016: Both national and state polls have consistently found Hillary Clinton improving on Obama's performance with this steadily growing group in early tests against possible GOP nominees.

With other whites, Obama's situation remains much more precarious. He drew positive approval ratings from just 26 percent of noncollege white men, 33 percent of college-educated white men, and 34 percent of white women without a college degree. "I haven't seen one good action out of the administration," says Geoffrey, a white manufacturing worker from Plainfield, Connecticut, who asked to withhold his last name. John, a white software engineer from Manhattan, who also asked to withhold his last name, was even more dismissive: "I think he's done a terrible job. … Obamacare makes things more expensive, and I think in the long run, the goal of the government is to make health care too expensive, to make it fail, and require the government to come in and completely socialize it."

For all of Obama's difficulties among the noncollege white men and college white men, he won reelection fairly comfortably in 2012 despite carrying fewer than 2-in-5 among each group. And by contrast to his struggles on those fronts, the poll found that Obama has now regained majority approval from each of the three pillars of the modern Democratic electoral coalition: young adults ages 18-29 (52 percent), college white women (53 percent), and minorities (66 percent). "I think he's doing pretty good, especially with health care reform and creating opportunities to go back to college," says Chavez Eaton, a 24-year-old African American from Felton, Delaware, who is planning to return to college. "Congress isn't doing a good job, but Obama does the best he can with what he has."

Similar divisions of race and class appeared on a question the Heartland Monitor has asked since September 2009, with slightly different wording over time, about the impact of Obama's economic policies. Overall, in the new survey, 45 percent of adults said Obama's policies have "run up a record federal deficit while failing to significantly improve the economy," while 42 percent said his policies have helped "to avoid an even worse economic crisis and are fueling economic recovery." That narrowly negative tilt was the best showing for Obama on that question since November 2012.

Stark racial and class differences rippled through these reactions too. While 56 percent of nonwhites said Obama's policies had helped more than they hurt, just 29 percent of noncollege white men, and 34 percent of both noncollege white women and college-educated white men agreed. Among whites, only the college-plus women gave the president mostly positive marks, with 52 percent saying his policies had mostly improved conditions. Just over two-fifths of independents said Obama's policies had done more harm than good—a modest result that nonetheless marks a clear gain from the most recent times the survey asked the question. Young adults split on this question exactly in half at 42 percent each.

The survey also found advances for Obama on the related question of how his policies had affected individuals' personal financial prospects. In the survey, 32 percent of adults said his policies would increase "opportunity for people like you to get ahead"; an equal 32 percent said his approach would "decrease opportunity for people like you to get ahead"; and 31 percent said Obama's plans would have no impact.

That hardly qualifies as a ringing endorsement, but it does represent tangible progress for Obama: In November 2013, the share of adults who said their opportunities would be reduced by his policies (47 percent) was more than double the portion who thought they would be increased (23 percent). The racial contrast on this question remains sharp too: While minorities are far more likely to believe Obama's policies will increase (49 percent) rather than decrease (20 percent) their economic opportunities, whites are more likely to see Obama limiting (38 percent) than expanding (25 percent) their prospects. Noncollege white men and women, not surprisingly, are especially negative, and though Obama recorded some improvement among well-educated white men, they remain mostly negative too. By contrast, for the first time since May 2011, more college-plus white women in the new poll say they believe Obama's policies will improve rather than diminish their opportunities. Generationally, Obama now runs even or narrowly ahead on this question among all age groups in their working years, especially those under 40; his numbers are suppressed by an extremely negative verdict among those over 65.

Asked "to the extent the economy has improved in recent months," who should get credit for the uptick, 37 percent picked Obama, 27 percent congressional Republicans, 23 percent neither, and 4 percent both; 3 percent said the economy has not improved. The same contrasts held on this question: Minorities were twice as likely to credit Obama as congressional Republicans, while whites split about evenly (31 percent for Obama, 29 percent for the GOP). Noncollege white men and women bent toward the GOP, but on this question the college-educated white men (somewhat surprisingly) joined their female counterparts in leaning more toward Obama. Still, continuing the poll's clear pattern, those well-educated women were much more likely to credit Obama than any other group of whites.

The country remains closely divided as well on the broader philosophical question of the government's role in the economy, which is certain to provide a central divide in the 2016 presidential race. In the poll, 35 percent of adults endorsed the Ronald Reagan-like notion that "in the current economic environment, government is not the solution to our economic problems; government is the problem."

Another 27 percent said that in the current climate "the government must play an active role in regulating the marketplace and ensuring that the economy benefits people like me." The remaining 34 percent made up the conflicted swing group: they agreed that they "would like to see government play an active role in the economy to ensure it benefits people like me, but I am not sure that I can trust government to do this effectively." Minorities and college-educated white women were less likely than the other groups of whites to endorse the Reaganite sentiment and to lean toward the options that reflected at least receptivity to government activism. Young adults under 30 were also considerably less likely than those older to endorse the idea that government is the problem.

The modestly rising tide of economic optimism has lifted even assessments of Congress, although they remain dismal: 18 percent said they approve of Congress's performance, while 71 percent disapprove. Still, that's the highest approval rating for Congress since November 2012. Although the GOP now controls both chambers, Congress faces disapproval ratings of about 7-in-10 or more among Democrats, independents, and even Republicans.

Americans rate their own member of Congress slightly more positively: 36 percent said they approve of their own representative, while 42 percent disapprove. This question provokes a greater partisan divide: While pluralities of Democrats and independents say they disapprove of their own representative, a slight plurality of Republicans say they approve.