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After sliding through the summer, President Barack Obama’s job approval ratings have leveled out, settling in the low 50s and comfortably next to those of recent presidents.
Obama’s polling position going into the fall is a far cry from the spring, when he was cruising in the mid-60s. But despite his summer plunge, a number of top pollsters say that Obama’s 52 percent average approval rating in Gallup’s September survey is well within the expected range in the first year of a new administration.
Presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon all settled into the 50s by this time in the Gallup Poll. Dwight Eisenhower averaged a 61 percent approval rating during his first September as president.
The only recent presidents with approval ratings in the 70s at this point in their terms were John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — though the younger Bush’s rating was strongly influenced by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
Obama “is certainly doing as well as, or better than, Reagan or Clinton,” said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. “He looks like he is holding his own compared to other presidents at this point.”
“His problems with his falling numbers at one point were being overwritten,” added Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “He’s doing reasonably well considering that we are in a country where unemployment is approaching 10 percent and we’re in the middle of a highly contentious debate.”
There has been virtually no movement in the president’s approval rating since the end of August — regardless of the poll — even as some have consistently shown Obama a few points higher or lower than the rest.
“It has flattened out after basically dropping all year. After Labor Day, there has been no discernible movement,” said Mark Blumenthal, editor of Pollster.com. “When you look at all the polls, you see the same trend.”
Gallup’s daily presidential tracking poll has shown Obama’s approval rating at 51, 52 or 53 percent every day since Sept. 5. Over the same period, Rasmussen’s daily tracking poll has tacked between 48 and 52 percent. And in the Internet-based Zogby poll, the president’s approval rating has stood at 49 percent in two surveys this month.
Even partisan polling firms show the same trend.
In two national polls this month by Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, Obama’s approval rating changed by only a single percentage point, from 51 percent to 52 percent, over a two-week span. And in polls conducted this month by two Republican firms, the president’s approval stood at 55 percent with OnMessage and 51 percent with Public Opinion Strategies.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said that “while Washington insiders are focused on tracking the latest polls, the president has put polls and partisan politics aside to confront the challenges that Washington has ignored for too long, including health insurance reform.”
“We’re confident that as long as the president continues to put the interests of America’s families first,” Earnest said, “then the polls will take care of themselves.”
Pollsters interviewed by POLITICO could not point to any single reason for the president’s newly solidified numbers. Rather, they cited a series of possible explanations, ranging from the White House’s taking a more assertive role in the health care debate to a natural settling of public opinion after the burst of the post-Inauguration bubble.
“It’s very difficult in this business to make a prediction about what is going to happen in presidential approval,” Newport explained. “I would think the Obama White House would say that it should have gone up, while Republicans probably would have expected it to go down this month. But the surprising thing among all this activity is that it hasn’t moved significantly.”
“The real free-fall was heading into the summer, and it got close to the bottom in July. It has since then started to stabilize,” added Scott Rasmussen, CEO of Rasmussen Reports. “This all has to do with the dynamics with the electorate. In February, Republicans started to voice their displeasure with the president, and that hasn’t really changed.”
Rasmussen suggested that Obama’s approval is tied to health care reform, pointing out that until the president’s central issue is resolved, he’s not likely to experience much of a bump or drop.
Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who’s an authority on polling, also identified the health care debate as the reason Obama’s numbers have steadied. But unlike Rasmussen, Franklin pointed to the president’s recent actions on the issue, crediting the White House for stemming the tide.
“He’s back from his August vacation and saying things the administration is pushing hard,” Franklin said. “Health care reform stopped moving away from him and started moving toward him.”
Franklin also said that many of those who have turned on Obama do not seem to have taken a permanent stance against him.
Among voters who identify themselves as strong Republicans or strong Democrats, Franklin said, “we see the same polarization we saw in the Bush administration, but reversed.”
But for voters who merely lean toward one party or the other, Franklin contended that there’s “a more fluid group that could move up and down, depending on Obama’s performance.”
Others see the recent trend as less tied to the health care debate than to a more natural evolution in the views that Americans have of their leaders.
“Obama’s really in a very solid position,” said Tom Jensen, a Democratic pollster for Public Policy Polling. “If he had to stand for reelection, there is probably a better chance that he would win with 400 electoral votes, rather than 300 electoral votes.”
“People who voted for Barack Obama still approve of him, and people who didn’t don’t approve of him,” Jensen added. “The health care issue hasn’t damaged Obama’s long-term political prospects. It has just brought him back down to earth a little.”
Kohut, though, pinned the president’s approval rating to the overall state of the nation’s economy and voter confidence.
“If he would have continued to go down, it would have suggested a much bigger problem than he really has,” Kohut said. “His decline in approval ratings from the mid-60s to the low 50s reflects that people are unsure of conditions.”
“What will move these numbers up or down will be the direction of unemployment and where this health care debate goes,” he concluded.