President Obama remains the most important person in the midterm election, which is now just a week away. He is not as unpopular as his predecessor was at this point eight years ago, but he is still unpopular, and Democratic candidates are twisting themselves in knots to create distance from him.
Second-terms are seldom happy affairs, and this one has been no exception. The last two years have witnessed revelations about the surveillance state, Vladimir Putin's provocations, and the rise of the Islamic State. The IRS quasi-scandal and the revelations of worrisome gaps at the Secret Service have kept the press office at the White House busy. So has the catastrophic launch of the Obamacare Web site last year and the chaotic response to the Ebola epidemic this year.
Yet, despite what you might read in the news, Obama's unpopularity likely has little to do with these events. After Obama won reelection, his approval ratings were positive. They began declining early in 2013, before any of these crises developed. They continued to erode at a steady rate, regardless of the headlines from week to week, before leveling off at around 40 percent, according to the latest polling from The Washington Post-ABC News. Indeed, the ratings have hardly budged throughout the past 12 months, as Gallup's polling shows.
Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup, described this trend simply as "a regression to the mean," the gradual waning of the public's goodwill toward the president that he'd built up during his campaign for reelection and "the halo that comes with victory." This kind of decline is common for a president following a successful election campaign.
The effects of bad press, as measured by the polls, have always disappeared after a few days. For example, the presidents' ratings were already more or less stable by the time of the launch of healthcare.gov. Some good news about the health care law a few months later, when the administration announced that it had met its enrollment targets, inflated the president's poll numbers for a few weeks, before they declined again to their previous level.
"If you look at the graph, you just see a gradual erosion from the high point," Newport said. By now, he added, most people seem to have made up their minds about Obama, and it would take something really dramatic to make them reconsider.
The Iran-contra scandal swayed public opinion against President Reagan during his second term, as did the Iraq war after Bush's reelection, Newport said. While it's true that second-term presidents often seem incapable of advancing their agendas, that doesn't mean they're always unpopular: A buoyant economy kept President Clinton's ratings high throughout his tenure. Indeed, his approval rating climbed to a whopping 73 percent immediately after his impeachment.
The now lukewarm economy is the probably best explanation for the public's lukewarm views of the president, Newport speculated. The economy is generally among the most important factors in determining how people will vote. While voters are more likely to criticize Obama on a range of issues from immigration to foreign affairs, their views on his handling of the economy are more or less in in line with their views on his presidency in general, according to The Post-ABC poll.
It's impossible to say which forces are most important in determining the president's popularity, but they have apparently reached a kind of equilibrium. Crises and fumbles, real or imagined, have not shifted that equilibrium and probably won't in the future, either.
What's in Wonkbook: 1) Conflicting stances on Ebola 2) Opinions: Good and evil, voter identification, and midterm boredom 4) The Republican agenda 5) New research on sexual assault and the future of online television
Quote of the day: "Don't let anybody tell you that, you know, it's corporations and businesses that create jobs." -- Hillary Rodham Clinton. The former secretary of state seemed desperate off a possible challenge from her left for the presidential nomination in 2016. Philip Klein in The Washington Examiner.
1. Top story: Ebola policy descends into confusion
The quirks of politics and geography throw Ebola policy into chaos. Quarantine and monitoring protocols vary by state, and no one seems to be listening to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Joel Achenbach, Brady Dennis and Lena Sun in The Washington Post.
Washington tried to restore order with a new set of guidelines Monday. Administration officials called check-ups and phone calls for travelers returning from West Africa. Sabrina Tavernise, Michael Shear and Helene Cooper in The New York Times.
Cuomo and Christie adopt contradictory, shifting stances. "A lack of clear standards from the governors of New York and New Jersey over their Ebola quarantine policy left critics and even some allies questioning on Monday whether the two men had fully worked through the details before they announced it." Kate Zernike and Thomas Kaplan in The New York Times.
JEFFREY DRAZEN et al.: The quarantines in New York and New Jersey are unscientific and counterproductive. "The governors' action is like driving a carpet tack with a sledgehammer: it gets the job done but overall is more destructive than beneficial." The New England Journal of Medicine.
KLEIN: Ebola will make Americans more conservative. Psychological research suggests that many of our political views are evolutionary responses to infectious microbes, developed over eons. As a result, the threat of Ebola will likely make people more xenophobic and more resistant to change. Vox.
2. Top opinions: Good and evil, voter ID, and why the midterms are boring
BROOKS: Can't we just all get along? Politics is not an epic battle between the eternal forces of good and evil. It's a messy process of compromise between competing interests. Let's acknowledge as much and treat each other with a little more understanding. The New York Times.
TOOBIN: The Supreme Court missed a chance to protect the right to vote. In allowing a voter identification law to be enforced in Texas, the court blocks the poor and members of minority groups from democratic participation. The New Yorker.
VON SPAKOVSKY: Voter fraud is a real thing, you guys. It may be impossible to know how fraudulent voting has affected past elections, but it's certain it will occur in this one, and it could sway a close election in favor of a Democrat. The Wall Street Journal.
BEINART: The midterms are boring. There's not that much at stake. The consequences for policy are limited. The Atlantic.
3. Another look at the Republican agenda
If they win in the Senate, Republicans might decide to start making real policy again. A few genuine achievements would be a boon to the G.O.P. presidential candidate in 2016, and voters might well hold Republicans to account if they take control of Congress and don't do anything productive. Molly Ball in The Atlantic.
Republicans have stopped talking about repealing Obamacare. In several crucial races, Republican candidates are expressing support for popular provisions in the law. They might be less insistent on repeal if they take control of Congress. Sahil Kapur at Talking Points Memo.
The House majority leader, at least, is ready to make a deal. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) argues that Republicans need to prove they're capable of governing. Jake Sherman for Politico.
PONNURU: Republicans shouldn't compromise on a spending bill during the lame duck session. McCarthy should be patient. If Republicans win the election, they should wait until they control Congress and can pass a budget without giving up their bargaining power. Bloomberg.
VINIK: Republicans' plans, if they take the Senate, will go nowhere. Before they can advance an agenda of their own, they've got to resolve their own differences. Passing an immigration bill would be a good place to start. The New Republic.
4. In case you missed it
MIT conducted an in-depth survey on sexual assault. About one in six women said they'd experienced unwanted touching or penetration, which is in line with previous research. Only one in nine said they'd been raped or sexually assaulted, which suggests that students' definitions of those terms don't agree with administrators. Richard Pérez-Peña in The New York Times.
The FCC could regulate online television as it does cable. Under the proposal, which is still being drafted, subscription services planned by HBO, CBS, Dish Network and others could negotiate rights to content on equal terms with cable providers. That would mean greater competition for Comcast and the giants of the industry. Brendan Sasso in National Journal.
Obama is unpopular with the business community. Corporations have been raking in the cash, but competition from foreign countries for business has intensified, political gridlock is hampering effective governance, and small businesses feel like the recovery has left them behind. The Economist.