Why Obama Shouldn't Worry About His Lousy Poll Numbers
President Obama's poll numbers have hit just about the lowest point of his presidency.
They started sinking after the Obamacare website's miserable debut last month. Now, only around 40 percent of Americans think Obama is doing a good job. More than half disapprove of his performance. (A year ago, the numbers were the opposite.)
It seems obvious to say that a high approval rating helps a president, while a low approval rating hurts him. But here are five reasons Obama's numbers might not be as troublesome as they sound.
1. He Was Never Popular With Congress Anyway
A high approval rating can give a president's initiatives a boost in Congress. "The willingness of members of Congress to take risks," explains Republican strategist Kevin Madden, "is usually proportional to the president's popularity."
Key word: Usually.
Even when Obama's popularity neared its high point, the president had a hard time getting bills through Congress. Just after his re-election, with approval ratings above 50 percent, Obama pushed immigration and gun control policies that seemingly had a lot of public support. Neither one became law.
Obama expressed his fury at the gun bill's failure during an emotional event at the White House Rose Garden, saying, "There were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn't do this. It came down to politics."
In other words, Obama has governed like an unpopular president even when he was popular.
At least the guy is consistent, says Ann Selzer, president of the nonpartisan Selzer & Co. polling firm in Iowa. "He has problems when his poll numbers are high in terms of getting legislation passed, and problems when his poll numbers are low."
2. Bad Poll Numbers Are Relative
Sure, only around 40 percent of Americans think Obama is doing a good job. But Congress would love to have that kind of approval rating. They're looking at single digits — and Republicans in Congress are doing even worse.
That makes some Democrats optimistic about their party's chances in 2014, even though the party of the president typically loses seats in a midterm.
"Independent voters more than anybody are really fed up with the Republicans," says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "For the first time in I think modern history, you have polls out there showing that almost 65 percent of voters want to get rid of their member of Congress. That has never been the case," she says.
She's referring to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from last month showing widespread damage to the GOP from the government shutdown.
Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker says disapproval of Congress casts Obama's position in a different light.
"Usually you have a situation in which the president is up and Congress is down, or the president is down and Congress is up," says Baker. "People liken it to a seesaw. But, in a sense, what we have now is a kind of rubber seesaw in which both sides are down."
Says pollster Selzer: "In a relative world where people are feeling that Washington's not moving, getting things done, or passing legislation, there's a sense that Obama is actually really surviving with the rosiest scenario."
3. There's Not Much Purple On The Congressional Map
In the midterm elections, Obama's approval rating can only really tilt the outcome in purple, or highly competitive, congressional districts. And there are fewer of those than ever before. Redistricting has wiped out swing districts in favor of safe zones for Republicans and Democrats.
"Majorities are built in Congress based on a much smaller universe of swing districts," says Republican Madden. "But in those swing districts, it's the president's popularity that usually makes the difference between whether a Democrat can win or a Democrat will lose."
Political scientist Baker says winning the 17 seats necessary to regain control of the House from Republicans "has always been an uphill prospect for the Democrats," no matter what the president's approval rating might be.
Still, this week's gubernatorial election in Virginia showed that Obama could be a drag on Democratic candidates in purple areas. Terry McAuliffe was forecast to carry the state by double digits. Instead, he won by a much smaller margin.
4. It's A Pretty Narrow Swing
Although Obama is at a low point now, his approval rating hasn't really varied all that much. After his initial election spike in 2008, his favorability numbers have settled into a band between the low 50s to around 40 percent. Not great, but not really terrible either — especially compared with his predecessor.
President George W. Bush had a high of 90 percent approval just after the 9/11 attacks, and a low of 25 percent late in his second term.
5. Obama's Done Running For Office
Perhaps the biggest reason presidents chase high approval ratings is to win re-election. As Obama often tells audiences with evident relief, that's not something he ever has to worry about again.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. President Obama's poll numbers have reached almost the lowest point of his presidency. They started to dip with the Obamacare website rollout, and they've been slipping pretty steadily since then.
Today, around 40 percent of Americans think he's doing a good job, compared to more than 50 percent who disapprove of Obama's performance. A year ago, those numbers were the exact opposite. NPR's Ari Shapiro looks at what impact, if any, this has on the president.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: OK, it sounds obvious - a high approval rating helps a president; a low approval rating hurts him. But just because something is obvious, that doesn't mean it's true. Let's look at some of the reasons a high approval rating might help a president.
Kevin Madden is a Republican political consultant.
KEVIN MADDEN: The willingness of members of Congress to take risks, risks that are often required when it comes to forging major compromises on legislation, is usually proportional to the president's popularity.
SHAPIRO: In other words, a popular president can often get his agenda through Congress.
MADDEN: Right now, the president is unpopular, so his low poll numbers have made dealing with an already challenging Congress that much more of a difficult task.
SHAPIRO: But look back at what happened when the president was popular. Just after re-election, Obama's approval rating was above 50 percent. He pushed immigration and gun-control policies that had a lot of public support, and neither bill made it through Congress. Obama expressed his fury at the gun bill's failure during an emotional event in the White House Rose Garden.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn't do this. It came down to politics.
SHAPIRO: Ann Selzer runs a nonpartisan polling firm in Iowa. She says you can say this for Obama: The guy's consistent.
ANN SELZER: He has problems when his poll numbers are high - in terms of getting legislation passed - and problems when his poll numbers are low.
SHAPIRO: So it's not as though hitting rock-bottom will suck the momentum out of Obama's legislative agenda. It didn't have momentum in the first place. Political scientist Ross Baker, of Rutgers University, says low poll numbers are also relative. Consider the president's approval ratings compared to other leaders in Washington.
ROSS BAKER: Usually, you know, you have a situation in which the president is up and Congress is down, or the president is down and Congress is up. And people liken it to a seesaw. Well, you know, in a sense, what we have now is a kind of rubber seesaw, in which both sides are down.
SHAPIRO: Congressional Republican numbers are so far down into the single digits, that Obama's approval rating actually looks good by comparison. This could be important for the 2014 elections. Typically, in a midterm, the president's party loses seats. Nobody's sure what will happen this time. Democrats would have to gain 17 seats to take back the House of Representatives.
MARY ANN MARSH: Independent voters, more than anybody, are really fed up with the Republicans.
SHAPIRO: Mary Anne Marsh is a Democratic strategist in Boston.
MARSH: For the first time in, I think, modern history, you have polls out there that show that almost 65 percent of all voters want to get rid of their member of Congress. That has never been the case.
SHAPIRO: She believes that number could be more important than Obama's favorability number.
Here's another unique fact about Congress right now: Today, there are fewer swing districts than at almost any time in history. Most places are solid red or blue. In those districts, it doesn't much matter how popular or unpopular the president is. Still, Republican strategist Kevin Madden says the president's standing will be a powerful force in the few purple districts that remain.
MADDEN: Majorities are built in Congress based on a very limited, a much smaller universe of swing districts. But in those swing districts, it's the president's popularity that usually makes a difference between whether a Democrat can win or a Democrat will lose.
SHAPIRO: Look at purple Virginia this week, where governor-elect Terry McAuliffe beat his Republican opponent by a much smaller margin than expected. Many say Obama's weak standing contributed to that outcome.
Although Obama is at a low point right now, his approval rating really has not varied that much. It bounces from the low 50s to around 40. In contrast, President George W. Bush had a high of 90 percent approval, and a low of 25 percent.
There is, of course, one other reason presidents chase high approval ratings: to win re-election. As Obama often tells audiences, that is not something he ever has to worry about again.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.