President Obama is down. But is he out?

December 11, 2013

President Obama is at the lowest point of his presidency. No one who looks at the slew of polling data out over the past 48 hours could mount a serious argument otherwise.


It's been a rough year for President Obama. Can he come back? Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg

But, is Obama's current (low) standing indicative of a broader death spiral in terms of public opinion from which he has little hope of recovering, a la George W. Bush after the political aftermath of his handling of Hurricane Katrina? Or is there a possibility that Obama could recover -- somewhere to a 50-50 (or so) approval/disapproval  mark -- before his presidency ends?

Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who is one-half of the bipartisan team that conducts the NBC-WSJ poll, makes the case that Obama is damaged beyond repair.  Writes McInturff:

In every single  track of the NBC/WSJ survey -- until late October -- the president’s personal positive ratings always exceeded his negative ratings. As the weeks have passed since that late October track, it is even easier to see the parallels to the post-Katrina period as the president’s job approval ratings, personal favorable ratings, and key attitudinal measures have all dropped.

The case for a comeback or, more accurately, a modest recovery that gets Obama out of George W. Bush territory and into the upper 40s in job approval, is contained in a single question in the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday morning.

When voters were asked to judge their feelings about Obama and his policies, 36 percent said they liked him and his policies, while 28 percent said that while they liked the president personally, they didn't like his policies. (Thirty-one percent of people didn't like Obama or his policies, and 2 percent liked Obama's policies but not him.)

The key number -- if you buy into the "comeback remains possible" storyline -- is the roughly one in four people who still like Obama but disapprove of his policies. That's a group whose opinion about Obama's policies, at least at the moment, is heavily influenced by the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov and the president's mistaken claim that if you liked your insurance, you could keep it. (Of the 50 percent of people who said they were either "disappointed" or "dissatisfied" with Obama's presidency, roughly one in every three attributed that unhappiness to Obamacare's problems.)

In theory, people who still like Obama but dislike the health-care law and, therefore, by extension his "policies," could turn around on the president if the health-care law implementation smoothes out in the coming months. (It's hard to imagine it going worse.)

"Could" is the key word in that paragraph.  At a similar point in his presidency (March 2006), 28 percent of the public said that they liked George W. Bush personally but disliked his policies -- the same percentage who say that of Obama today. And, as we all know, Bush never won those people back, with his approval ratings dipping into the low 30s and even high 20s before his presidency ended. (Worth noting: Just 19 percent of people in June 1996 said they liked Bill Clinton personally but disapproved of his policies.)

An important factor in this discussion is how the extreme polarization of the public makes "recovery" -- if you believe it's possible -- a relative term. Given that 90+ percent of Republicans will disapprove of Obama virtually no matter what he does or what happens between now and 2016, and that independents are more Republican-leaning (and, as a result, disapproving of Obama) than in previous presidencies, it's virtually impossible for Obama to ever get close to the lofty 60 percent (or higher) approval ratings that people like Clinton and Ronald Reagan enjoyed in their second terms.

Still, if there is a way back to political equilibrium (or close to it) for Obama, it's based in finding a way to convert the 28 percent of people who like him but don't like his policies into backers of those policies. Possible? Yes. Easy? Absolutely not.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · December 11, 2013