Sometime around 1:00 pm last Friday, you may have heard a loud caterwauling outside your window. That was the sound of the punditry class going gaga upon the release of Gallup’s daily tracking poll showing that President Obama’s job approval rating had finally inched below the symbolic 50 percent line.
Combined with the recent losses for Democrats in New Jersey and Virginia — and the alleged flight of independents into the waiting arms of the GOP in those elections — the milestone might be another indicator of the trouble this administration now finds itself in.
But let’s not lose our heads. The estimable Charles Franklin of Pollster.com takes a look at the polling data over the last few months and finds much ado about nothing:
There is no evidence that any group of Dems, especially liberal Dems are unhappy with Obama’s performance. Critical is that moderate and even conservative Dems have not moved away since August. Angry conservative Reps are indeed very unhappy with Obama, at almost the same level of disgust as Dems felt for Bush, but they too have reached a plateau at a steady 10% approval. The small number of moderate Reps have also plateaued (I’d discount small moves in the last week of the aggregation.)
So the point is simple: Claims of abandonment of Obama by independents (or lib-Dems or con-Dems) are substantially exaggerated over the past three months. Significant decline from May through August, yes indeed among Inds and Reps, but that trend halted in August.
Far from plummeting, Obama’s approval rating has stabilized in recent months to a range close to his percentage total in last year’s vote. And when did we decide that a president dipping below 50 percent was a kiss of death for the rest of his term? Pundits made a big deal of the Gallup news, calling the fall “historic,” as it was the fourth fastest rate of decline of any president since World War II. Third on that list? Ronald Reagan, who was so damaged by his swift descent that he failed to win Minnesota in the 1984 election. (He did win all the others.)
To put Obama’s 49 percent in proper context, take a look at this chart from the Wall Street Journal:
These are the approval ratings for all the presidents since World War II. Every single president save for Eisenhower and Kennedy dipped below 50 percent. In fact, Truman, Reagan, and Clinton all hovered around or dipped below the 40 percent mark at some point in their first terms. And yet they somehow managed to win reelection.
For all of the overheated talk about polls and public opinion, you can bet that there’s little panic in White House. As we’ve noted before, this White House seems to have an almost eerie capacity to block out the noise of the day-to-day and take the long view. Andrew Sullivan put it well:
He is strategy; his opponents are tacticians. And in my view, their tactics are consigning them to a longer political death than if they had taken a more constructive course.
In the Obama world view, a stumble is a non-event, a bad poll a blip. What counts is whether you get to the destination in the end. It’s an outlook that got him to the finish line during the campaign. Let’s see if it gets him to where he wants to go in the crucial months ahead.