Why Obama's Approval Rating Is Up

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It’s easy to see, on grounds both substantive and stylistic, why Barack Obama aggravates conservatives and perplexes independents.

His stubborn refusal to acknowledge that Islamic terrorism—even when committed on a U.S. Army base—is Islamic terrorism is head-scratching. He certainly should have marched in France with other world leaders after the Paris attacks, or sent someone in his stead, such as Secretary of State John Kerry.

Obama’s penchant for tweeting out selfies associating himself with others’ achievements—this week it was the Yosemite rock climbers—is more appropriate for a college student than a 53-year-old occupant of the Oval Office. On a more serious side, his enthusiastic expansion of federal authority into the everyday lives of Americans is aggravating, and expensive for taxpayers. Ideology aside, his willingness to use executive power lavishly after criticizing George W. Bush on the same grounds is nakedly hypocritical.

Along the way, Obama has utterly lost the confidence of the U.S. military he commands. A poll released by the Military Times on Thursday shows only 15 percent of uniformed personnel approve of his performance as commander-in-chief.

Yet in the past few weeks, Obama’s job approval rating among the public has crept back up from a low of around 40 percent to the range of 47-48 percent. That’s a historically respectable range for a president in his sixth year in office, and about in the middle of his two predecessors at the corresponding times in their White House tenures. Bill Clinton was in the high-50s, while George W. Bush hovered in the mid-30s.

At this precise point in his presidency, Ronald Reagan, who carried 49 states while winning re-election, was buffeted by the Iran-Contra scandal. His approval rating: almost exactly the same as Obama’s numbers today. So the question might be phrased this way: What does the American public see—or half the public, anyway—that eludes conservatives, pundits, and our military? Here are four factors:

The U.S. Economy is Finally Improving

In 1980, in another time of deep economic troubles, incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter tried to soothe Americans’ angst by saying it was a “recession,” not a “depression.” He was right, but this gave his Republican challenger an opening. Accusing Carter of hiding behind a dictionary, Reagan offered his own definition in a memorable campaign trail quip. “A recession in when your neighbor loses his job,” Reagan said. “A depression is when you lose yours. A recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”

Barack Obama won re-election in 2012, despite presiding over the Great Recession. And even that ominous-sounding phrase doesn’t fully explain how stagnant things have been. Ronald Reagan’s wit aside, economists define a recession as declining productivity for two successive quarters. But if one looks at the statistic that hits Americans where they live—workforce participation—the entire Obama presidency has been a period of high unemployment, record under-employment, and millions of discouraged people who just stopped looking for a job.

Most Americans didn’t blame Obama because they know this was the economy he inherited. Yes, it can be argued that Democrats kept whining about that far too long; yes, it’s also true that the $814 billion stimulus—all of it borrowed money—didn’t create as many jobs as the administration had predicted. And yes, too much of it was wasted.

But the president’s repeated assertion that when he took office the U.S. economy was shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs each month is a fact. It’s also a fact that job growth in the last four months was steady and impressive. It took a long time, but the country turned the corner on employment. It didn’t happen in time to help beleaguered Democratic candidates in last November’s midterms, but the 2014 total of 3 million new jobs is helping make the occupant of the Oval Office more popular—as it should and always has.

“He Kept us Out of War”

That phrase was not used at the Democrats’ national convention in Charlotte in 2012—that happened at the Democrats’ 1916 convention that re-nominated Woodrow Wilson—but the sentiment is apt. Along with an awful economy, Obama was bequeathed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wrapped up most U.S. military operations in Iraq and is in the process of doing the same in Afghanistan.

For many Washington commentators—including me—the administration’s military withdrawal was premature, and is partly responsible for the vacuum that led to the formation of the Islamic State. But let’s be honest: in his reluctance to deploy troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria—not to mention Libya and Nigeria and God-knows-where-else—Obama is in sync with a solid majority of Americans. A new Brookings Institution poll confirms this. Although 78 percent of Americans support the U.S. air strikes against ISIS ordered by the president, 57 percent of the poll’s respondents oppose sending American ground troops.

Race Relations

It’s an article of faith, repeated ad nauseam in certain liberal circles, that a sizeable segment of the U.S. electorate wants Obama to fail in office because of his skin color. This is an ugly argument, with little supporting evidence, employed cynically both as a campaign wedge issue and as a way of inoculating the president from criticism—as if any U.S. president has ever been so shielded.

It might surprise those making such claims that when actual Republicans are together in private they express almost the opposite sentiment: they are implacably opposed to Obama because of his big-government policies, knee-jerk identity politics and liberalism, and their hope was that America’s first African-American president would be someone with whom they could have found more common ground.

That said, the police shootings of young blacks that roiled this country through much of 2014 have shown all but the most partisan Americans that Obama’s election did not miraculously heal longstanding racial wounds. And make no mistake, independent white voters in this country still want Obama to succeed in office, and it is among these voters that his popularity ticked upward in the last two months.

The Job is Hard—and He’s Sticking to it

U.S. presidents oversee the most lethal armed forces in world history, their families live in a fishbowl, they are supposed to fix the economy, and are asked to inveigh publicly without missteps on everything from global climate changes to pro football officiating. Is it any wonder they turn gray prematurely before our eyes?

But after Democrats got walloped in November—by Republican candidates who essentially ran against Obama—the president has, if anything, upped his game. Barely acknowledging the voters’ rebuke of his policies and his political party, he’s doubled down on his dual inclination to wield power unilaterally and to expand the government’s role.

Americans don’t like a quitter, however, meaning that even those who opposed his policies can appreciate the man’s commitment. Asked by RealClearPolitics’ White House correspondent Alexis Simendinger to explain the president’s improving popularity, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest first mentioned the budget deal forged with Congress in the waning days of 2014, which kept the government running. He also cited some of the administration’s unilateral moves, including removing the threat of deportation hanging over the heads of some 4 million undocumented immigrants, and the president’s move toward normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba.

Even if you think those are bad policies, they are the president’s policies. He is owning them, whining less about the mess his predecessor left him, and doing the job the way he wants to. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by swing voters and it’s an instructive lesson for Obama’s successor, whoever that turns out to be. 

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