President Obama is enjoying a sort of second political honeymoon in the wake of his re-election victory last November with a series of national polls showing his job approval rating climbing from the middling territory where it lagged for much of the last several years.
In the latest Real Clear Politics rolling average of all national polling, Obama approval is at 52 percent while his disapproval is at 43 percent. That may not seem like much but it marks a significant improvement over where he was for much of 2010 and 2011.
Here’s a look at Obama’s job approval trend line in Washington Post-ABC News polling from January 2011 until now:
Judging from his actions of late — most notably his surprising confrontational (and liberal) inaugural address — President Obama is well aware of the fact that he is enjoying a polling boom at the moment. And, even Republicans are tacitly acknowledging that Obama is living in a second honeymoon period by backing down on major legislative fights like the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling.
The pertinent question then is how long it will last — and what the president can get done between now and when the good times (for him, at least) stop rolling.
Gallup has done considerable work on the lengths of political honeymoons and has concluded that they ain’t what they used to be. Here’s their chart documenting the relative honeymoon lengths — as defined by a job approval rating above the 55 percent mark — of presidents in their first terms:
As Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones wrote:
“Only one of the last six presidents — George H.W. Bush — had a honeymoon that extended beyond his ninth month in office. Bush’s ratings actually climbed for much of his first year and a half in office as the economy remained strong, several communist regimes fell in Europe, and the U.S. military was able to capture Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and remove him from power.”
The explanations for the shortening of presidential honeymoons vary.
One theory is that modern presidents operate in a hyper-partisan world where the opposition party never rallies (or comes close to rallying) behind them. (In Gallup polling, nine of the ten most polarizing years of a presidency – as defined by the gap between presidential job approval among Democrats and job approval among Republicans — have come during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Obama.)
Because of that partisan division, modern presidents’ approval ratings start at a lower high point; that means the pace at which they dip below the 56 percent “honeymoon” mark is significantly hastened. The one and only Nate Silver makes just that point when examining second term presidential honeymoons in this post and accompanying chart:
Another factor contributing to the truncation of political honeymoons is that in the world of 24-hour cable networks, Twitter and the fracturing of the traditional media, the attention span of the American public is much shorter than it once was — meaning that momentum simply dies away much faster nowadays.
Regardless of the reason, it’s clear that Obama has a limited time — six months perhaps? — to take legislative advantage of his second political honeymoon.
He seems committed to taking on three separate and distinct fights during that time: 1) gun control 2) immigration reform 3) debt and spending. Each of those legislative scraps will shorten his honeymoon as he expends political capital to try to get what he wants out of a Congress — particularly in the House — that seems likely to be resistant.
And, it’s possible — given the glacially slow pace at which Congress works and the aforementioned partisanship that seems to seize any and every issue — that Obama’s honeymoon will fade well before he gets all three of those priorities accomplished.
A look back at the trend line on his job approval in his first term is telling in that regard.
Even though Obama started off considerably higher in his first term than he began his second term, by August 2009 he had dropped to 54 percent approval in WaPo-ABC polling — thanks to the bailout of the American auto industry, the fight over the economic stimulus package and the earlier positioning over his health-care bill.
Considering that Obama is — at best — in the mid-50s in terms of job approval at the moment and the fact that the past showdowns on fiscal issues have revealed the massively different approaches advocated by the two parties, it’s not at all far fetched to assume that taking on just one of those fights might be enough to end the president’s second term honeymoon.
In short: The time is now for Obama to act on his legislative priorities. His political honeymoon will almost certainly be over by the time Congress recesses for its month-long August break this summer.