Fox News’s June 5-8 survey found 51 percent of adults approving of Obama’s performance while 46 percent disapproved. A June 9-13 CBS News poll and a June 10-13 Bloomberg poll both found the president’s job approval at an even higher 53 percent, with his disapproval in the low to mid-40s. A June 18-20 Gallup survey showed the president’s approval at 50 percent.
The change in sentiment is stark when comparing the December 10-13, 2015, and May 16-19, 2016, Washington Post-ABC News surveys.
In December, only 45 percent of adults approved of the president’s job performance while a majority, 51 percent, disapproved. Five months later, Obama’s job approval stood at 51 percent, while 46 percent of adults disapproved.
Over that period, Obama’s job performance among Republicans barely moved, while his improvement among Democrats was clear but small. However, his job approval among independents improved markedly, going from 42 percent in December to 50 percent in May.
That is important since, as one GOP consultant noted, independent voters’ disapproval of the president drove their vote in the 2014 midterms. The same strategist now fears that Obama’s improved standing among independents will be a problem down-ballot for Republicans.
Why has the president’s standing improved since December, when virtually every well-regarded poll showed more Americans disapproving than approving of his performance?
The economy could be a factor, since the nation’s unemployment rate has continued to drop, from 5 percent in November to 4.7 percent last month.
But the drop over the past six months hardly seems steep enough to change the public’s views about Obama, especially since economic growth has been slow, at best. Moreover, Obama’s overall job approval tends to be a couple of points better than the president’s approval on his handling of the economy.
It’s more likely that the president is benefiting from the inevitable comparison with the two presumptive presidential nominees, and with Trump in particular.
Obama has long been criticized for appearing cool and arrogant, but he certainly looks and sounds more presidential and thoughtful compared with the bluster and superficiality of Trump.
“Give Obama and his people credit for deciding that the time for polarizing and picking fights is over. His whole demeanor has changed. I’ve never seen him look more relaxed, more comfortable and more at ease,” a veteran Republican consultant told me recently.
In addition, agreed a veteran Democratic strategist, Obama “is not a candidate. He sounds like he isn’t running for anything.” Given the public’s view of this campaign and politicians in general, the fact that Obama cannot be a candidate may, in the eyes of some, make him less irksome.
Whatever the reasons for Obama’s rebound, does it have a big impact on the 2016 elections? Most party strategists are skeptical.
Some Republicans have been planning on using a “don’t give Obama a third term” argument against Clinton, and that message may not have the bite GOP strategists once expected.
But Democratic strategists don’t expect their candidates to try to tie themselves to Obama. As one Democratic strategist put it, “voters want to talk about what’s next, not about the past.” Of course, the president will be an asset in boosting Democratic turnout in some places — and raising money for the party — no matter whether his job approval is in the mid-40s or mid-50s nationally.
For Republicans — and most voters — Clinton and Trump are such polarizing candidates that voters will focus on them and their agendas, rather than on the past eight years.
Still, if after eight years of controversy and confrontation, Obama isn’t an albatross around his party’s neck (the way he was in the 2010 and 2014 midterms), most Democratic candidates and political operatives will be relieved.
Eight years ago, in April 2008, President George W. Bush’s job approval in the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll stood at 27 percent. The GOP nominee lost in November.
In April of 2000, President Bill Clinton’s job approval stood at 59 percent. His party’s presidential nominee won the popular vote but lost the election. And in April of 1988, President Ronald Reagan’s job approval stood at 49 percent. His party’s nominee that year won election comfortably.
Even if they hold at this level (which isn’t a certainty), Obama’s better job numbers probably won’t help Hillary Clinton or down-ballot Democrats.
But his improved standing deprives Republicans of another delectable target and lets everyone focus on the main event and on the issues of the day.
That isn’t a bad thing for Democrats this year.
Stuart Rothenberg writes about the politics of the presidential and congressional races.