President Obama's approval ratings have definitely improved over the last few months; his Pollster trend approval line has improved from below 43 percent in September to a bit over 47 percent today. Sure, that's just four points, but presidents with 42 percent approval ratings have little chance to win, and those in Obama's current range have a solid fighting chance.
Steve Kornacki had an excellent post yesterday discussing two possible causes of that positive trend: the improving economy, or Obama's newly partisan rhetoric. Both began at about the same time, so, as Kornacki notes, there's no obvious way to determine what's going on. It's a very good point.
However, I'd like to complicate things a bit more by suggesting a third possibility: nothing.
Not nothing as in polling variation; we have dozens of polls here, so we know that something real has happened. But back up a bit, and look at Obama throughout 2011. He begins the year at 47 percent, slips a little, but recovers and by May 1 is back up at 47 percent. May it’s the bin Laden rally. He ends May at...47 percent. Then we get the debt limit debacle, which really hits in July, dragging Obama's numbers to new lows. That starts fading from the news in September, at which point the approval numbers start moving back up, plateauing for now, at least, at, yes, 47 percent.
This suggests — but certainly doesn’t prove — that perhaps 47 percent is, given current conditions and all, more or less Obama’s natural level of support, and that all that has happened in the last fifteen months or so is that he returned to that level after every external shock. That wouldn’t be all that surprising; a lot of people have speculated that polarization may lead to partisan-induced approval ratings that just don’t shake around very much, although to be sure that didn’t happen during the George W. Bush presidency (plenty of extremes, there) or the first year of Obama’s term.
If I had to guess, I’d say that the increase in Obama’s approval ratings reflect a combination of removing the debt limit from the news, along with a bit of help from better economic news. But Kornacki is correct: It won’t be easy to untangle this one. It certainly will be interesting to see, should the economy really revive, if Obama’s approval ratings take off like Bill Clinton’s did in the 1990s, or if they stay flat.