At the end of the Republican primaries the punditocracy decided that Mitt Romney’s negatives had been driven too high and he would be saddled with low “favorability” or “likability” numbers against the president. But after the primary, those numbers bounced back.

Then, after a negative ad barrage this summer, those same pundits became, you guessed it, once again fixated on likability. I must say I was surprised in Tampa that this was almost always the first topic in questioning Romney surrogates. ( How does he overcome the likability problem? Can he win if he is so unlikable?) At times the media fascination with the topic became rather comical, especially for a group whining about the candidates’ lack of substance.

But wait. Maybe likability isn’t fixed but is a fluid impression, subject to new information and more easily affected than, say, the conviction we are in a recession. In the latest Post-ABC News poll the turnaround is dramatic:

Barack Obama approaches his nomination for a second term with the lowest pre-convention personal popularity of an incumbent president in ABC News/Washington Post polls since the 1980s. He’s also at his lowest of the year among registered voters, with trouble among women.

Just 47 percent of registered voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll see Obama favorably overall, down 7 percentage points from his recent peak in April, while 49 percent rate him unfavorably. He’s numerically underwater in this group for the first time since February.

After a period in which Democrats were harping on Todd Akin and making ham-handed appeals to women, Obama is faltering with a group that is usually an easy get for Democrats. (“The decline has occurred entirely among women registered voters – from 57-39 percent favorable-unfavorable in April to a numerically negative 46-50 percent now. That’s Obama’s lowest score among women voters – a focus of recent political positioning – in ABC/Post polls since he took office.”) Romney, meanwhile, got a convention bounce in likability (both in the Post-ABC poll and the CNN poll).

Maybe likability will shift again after the Democratic National Convention and/or again after one or more of the debates.

It could be, however, that in this election likability is the least permanent sentiment among voters. Whatever advantage in this department that Obama has enjoyed could well be an expression by voters that they don’t like his performance but don’t want to be seen as being against the president personally. (“I like him just fine, but. . . “)

On one level, it is remarkable that so many pixels and so much ink and time are expended on the most superficial aspect of a presidential race with enormous ramifications. By focusing on an ephemeral indicator (which I suspect they will ignore if Romney’s likability gap goes away), the media minimize the seriousness of the choice voters face and divert attention away from the economy, which some journalists recognize is largely ignored by political press. That might be good for ratings or for a president with a lousy economic record, but it’s not good journalism, nor is it good for our political culture.