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.