Why Is Obama Still Smiling? Look at the Polls


A slew of recent polling data points to a conclusion that might have seemed hard to believe amidst the town hall craziness in the dog days of August and early September: President Obama's numbers have not only stabilized but actually seem to be showing a modest uptick. And by several other measures the political landscape for Democrats isn't nearly as bleak as it was being portrayed just a few weeks ago.

To be sure, the evidence is insufficient to point to any dramatic, long-run Obama resurgence -- at least for now. But there's enough data to conclude that August, rather than being a public support train-wreck for the president was actually an inflection point, when the downward trend flattened out, and
in some cases began crawling back upward.

Presidential Approval

The numbers here all show that Obama's decline from his honeymoon period has essentially stopped -- and that he has leveled out in a solid territory.

Just a month ago, the talk had been about how Obama's approval rating had fallen from its prior, unnatural honeymoon highs. He'd reached 50% in Gallup, a key measure, and seemed ready to dip below 50% at any time.

But a funny thing happened: A further dip never happened. Instead, he leveled out and even seems to be enjoying a modest rebound.

A CBS/New York Times poll put him at 56%-33%, compared to 56%-35% in August. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has him at 51%-41%, compared to 51%-40% in August. A Fox News poll has him at 54%-39%, compared to 53%-40% in August.

The Economy

On the economy, Obama has either leveled out or even improved slightly.

Fox News puts Obama's approval at 55%-40% -- an improvement from Fox's July figure of 50%-43%. NBC/WSJ didn't show any significant improvement, but nor was there any degradation, with Obama at 50%-42% on the economy, compared to 49%-44% in July. CBS/NYT put him at 50%-40% on this, down slightly from 53%-41% in August, and essentially the same as 51%-41% in July -- and not really showing any statistically significant movement at all.

But public perceptions of the economy itself are equally telling and may serve as a leading indicator of the president's and his party's standing going into 2010. The public's perception of the overall economy is a key indicator in politics, which can have a serious impact on the incumbent party and the challengers -- just look at how there was a big swing to Obama last year, right when the market began to crash. Here, the perceptions are definitely improving. And that will be a key issue for the Democrats now that they're the ones in charge. The polls here show that the economy is certainly viewed as being bad -- but a growing number of people think it's starting to improve.

One question in the latest CBS/NYT poll suggests that the public is not only seeing improvements in the economy but may be connecting those improvements to President Obama's policies: "So far, do you think the government's stimulus package has made the economy better, made the economy worse, or has it had no impact on the economy so far?" The answer was 36% better, 13% worse, 46% no impact -- compared to a 25%-13%-57% split in August. Thus we have an 11-point swing from the no-impact column to the better column.

Health Care

As Charles Franklin has observed, the real story on health care reform in August and September was that an increase in opposition to reform that had been building up ended up stopping. Support for reform, which had been declining, ended up turning around and reaching parity with opposition.

On health care, the CBS/NYT poll gives a 47%-45% approval for Obama, up from 40%-47% in August. Fox has him at 44%-48%, compared to 43%-45% in July. NBC/WSJ is at 45%-46%, up from 41%-47% in August, and 41%-46% in July.

Congressional Ballot

The generic Congressional ballot very rarely shows truly drastic movement. But even here we some slight inflection. There certainly seemed to be a Republican surge in this number in August, catching up with the Democrats. But that effect has been wearing off, too.Here's the graph from Pollster:

Remaining Issues

It's not all good news, certainly. And the numbers do show that the opposition is much more solidly united in their views -- which could potentially feed into better voter motivation on their part. As one example, the NBC/WSJ poll finds only 20% believe the stimulus has begun improving the economy, to 38% who say it will not help the economy. Another 27% believe it has not yet improved the economy, but will do so in the future -- meaning that Obama and the Democrats still have to work hard to maintain the public's trust.

These numbers are all snapshots in time, and are always subject to future changes in both real events and the public's perception of those events. Even the phrasing of questions can have a big effect in terms of how they galvanize different sides or leave some people in the undecided column.

But all those caveats aside, while Republicans cast August as a grassroots uprising against Obama, there's been far from a revolution in public opinion. In fact, the available evidence suggests that Obama not only survived the assault, but may even have benefitted from it.


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