July 22, 2013

Gallup today ran its quarterly presidential approval rating story, with the expected result: sarcastic reactions, such as Dave Weigel’s “Could hurt the 2016 re-elect.” Fine; I guess every time this happens, I’ll have to remind everyone that, yes, Barack Obama’s popularity still matters.

Harry Enten tweeted two of the reasons: Obama’s popularity will affect both the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential year elections. For midterms, just think back to the last few: parties with unpopular presidents such as Obama in 2010, Bush in 2006 and Clinton in 1994 all suffered disasters, while parties with popular presidents (Clinton 1998, Bush 2002) did surprisingly well. Presidential elections with no incumbent on the ballot aren’t always dominated by the outgoing president’s approval, but just ask John McCain if you think it doesn’t matter.

That’s not all, however. Presidential popularity also affects outcomes in Washington — and even beyond Washington. As Richard Neustadt argued, political actors who need to work with the president tend to give him leeway when they believe he’s popular with their constituencies. That’s not just members of Congress; it also means interest group leaders, bureaucrats, politicians in state governments and even foreign leaders.

It’s not just fear of their constituents turning on them. Think about a bureaucrat at the EPA trying to decide whether to cooperate with Obama’s program or drag her feet. If Obama has a 60 percent approval rating, everyone in Washington believes that Democrats will win the next presidential election . . . and therefore she might as well go along unless she very strongly objects to the policy. On the other hand, if he’s at 40 percent, then everyone in Washington believes that Republicans will win in 2016, and any time implementing policy is likely wasted when President Cruz or Rubio or whoever overturns the policy. Even if she likes what the president wants, she may choose to implement standard bureaucratic blocking procedures.

To be sure: The Gallup story is about the past three months, while what matters is approval now and going forward; and, as always, the best results come from averaging polls, not from single data points or surveys.

But, yes, presidential approval and the perception of presidential approval really do matter, even if there’s no reelection campaign to come.