What's Behind Obama's Uptick in Job Approval -- and Will It Stick?

What's Behind Obama's Uptick in Job Approval -- and Will It Stick?

By Sean Trende - November 14, 2011

After plumbing new depths in August, President Obama's standing has improved steadily. He has now improved from a net minus-10.2 percent approval rating in late August to minus-4.7 percent. That shift is important, as it moves his general election chances from "almost sure-fire loser" territory to "in the hunt" territory.

So what’s going on here? Let’s look at the president’s net job approval in the RCP Average over the past two years:

The general trend is obviously downward, and most likely reflects the steadily darkening mood of the country since Obama took office. But there are some exceptions. The following is a list of weeks where his approval rating has generally improved. To give some sort of objectivity here while separating out statistical noise, the list includes only (a) seven-day periods when (b) on four of seven days (c) the president’s job approval was at least 1.5 points higher than the preceding seven days. In other words, it is seven-day periods when Obama’s job approval has consistently improved over the prior week. Here’s the list (some periods are longer than seven days, due to prolonged bounces) along with what events accompanied the gains:

* Jan. 16-23, 2009: Fight over Scott Brown seat;
* April 17-23, 2010; May 2-8, 2010: Aftermath of passage of health care bill; Obama disappears from headlines;
* Aug. 21- Sept. 1, 2010: Obama fades from headlines;
* Oct. 2-9, 2010; Oct. 19-26, 2010: Middle of the fight for control of Congress;
* Nov. 15-22, 2010: Obama fades from headlines;
* Jan. 8-29, 2011: Gabby Giffords shooting and aftermath;
* April 30-May 11, 2011: Osama bin Laden killed (the president had received a slight bounce beforehand, most likely stemming from the release of his birth certificate).

You can probably group these bounces into three major categories: (1) Obama fights and/or wins a partisan fight, energizing his base; (2) Obama does something extremely unifying; or (3) the larger category simply defined as “Obama fades from headlines.” These are time periods when nothing major has been going on (that I can recall or can find in the timeline of Obama’s presidency), but his approval ratings have nevertheless drifted upwards.

While he isn’t energizing his base when he “disappears,” he isn’t doing anything to anger it either. The same is also true for his opponents. The result is a gravitational force on his disapproval ratings. These time periods also tend to follow time periods of intense partisan wrangling, so they may represent something of a “dead cat” bounce. It is worth noting that we also see similar effects around Christmastime; there isn’t much polling then, but there are suggestions that his approval rating actually was moving upwards a bit in mid-to-late December of 2009 and 2010. Put differently, “soft disapprovers” come to think more positively of the Obama when they are concentrating on other things.

As to explanations for the current uptick (Oct. 11-16 and Oct. 24-Nov.7), number two isn’t really an option here. What we’re seeing is, somewhat paradoxically, a variant of number one combined with number three. It’s reasonably clear that the jobs bill debate hasn’t done the president much good: In the weeks following Obama’s Sept. 9 joint address to Congress, his approval rating generally trended downward.

The president’s uptick starts a little later than that, when two things occur: The Occupy Wall Street protests gather steam, and the Republican debate season begins in earnest. The demonstrations probably function as something of the next-best thing to a partisan win for Obama. In fact, they are arguably better, since the president isn’t around as a polarizing figure. Regardless, it is reasonably clear that the OWS protests have shifted the political debate somewhat from a discussion about austerity and government spending to one about inequality and corporate profits. This shift has probably served to energize a lethargic Democratic base. More important, the shift also has reminded moderate and conservative Democrats why they still identify with the party in the first place. Indeed, a large portion of the president’s surge has come from firming up support among Democrats, as opposed to bringing independents and moderate Republicans back into his camp.

Moreover, the onset of the Republican primary season hasn’t been a huge boon to Republicans. The headlines have been Mitt Romney’s flip-flops, Republican dislike for Romney, Rick Perry’s gaffes, Michele Bachmann’s gaffes, and Herman Cain’s sexual harassment charges. Stories about Newt Gingrich’s infidelities and troubled tenure as speaker of the House are likely right around the corner.

And when combined with Occupy Wall Street, the political oxygen is sucked up. This has actually had the net effect of making Obama look presidential and “above the fray.” This creates a bit of a good news/bad news situation for him. It is good news because the Republican Party purposely designed this year’s primary season to stretch into April. In other words, we may see an extended period of decent job approval numbers for the president. This is key, because it can help energize the Democratic base. More importantly, it will prevent donors and supporters from writing him off.

On the other hand, it is bad news because the Republican primary will wrap up, and the protests will probably end, either with a bang or a whimper (Obama probably prefers the latter). At the same time, there hasn’t been a change in the fundamentals of Obama’s presidency. The unemployment rate shows little sign of abating, disposable income shows little sign of rising, and his signature legislation shows little sign of becoming popular. His approval ratings on specific issues are abysmal: negative 41 percent on the deficit; negative 37 percent on the economy; negative 24 percent on creating jobs; negative 14 percent on health care. Combined, this exerts a gravitational force on his approval ratings, making it unlikely that he’ll be able to maintain heightened levels for an extended period of time, especially once he comes back into the spotlight. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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