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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s Approval Trend Predictable

Regarding the concerns in Dem circles about President Obama’s recent approval ratings, Brendan Nyhan has a calm-headed analysis. As Nyhan explains:

…Coverage of presidential approval suffers from a bizarre ahistoricism. Reporters typically have almost no understanding of the forces that drive presidential approval or the patterns it tends to follow during the course of a president’s time in office…That’s why it’s amusing to see so many people acting like it’s news that approval of President Obama’s handling of health care and overall job performance numbers are trending downward (particularly among independents and Republicans). Of course his numbers are going down! It’s been a virtual certainty that this transition would take place since the day Obama took office. The only question was when it would happen and how far down they would go.
The reason is simple. Presidential approval tends to decline after the honeymoon period as the opposition party begins to be more critical of the president…This decline was likely to be especially significant in Obama’s case because his initial Gallup approval levels were the highest for any president since JFK.

Regarding approval of Obama’s handling of health care, Nyhan notes:

…At first, Obama benefitted from what the political scientist John Zaller calls a one-message environment in which Congressional Republicans offered platitudes about their desire to work with him on health care. However, as the legislative process has moved forward, the GOP and its allies in the press have begun to aggressively attack his approach to the issue. As such, Republicans and sympathetic independents in the electorate are now more likely to tell pollsters that they don’t approve of Obama’s handling of the issue.
The upside for Obama is that these numbers don’t seem to indicate anything specific about the prospects for his health care plan. It would be surprising if the public didn’t start to split along partisan lines at this point given the nature of the proposal. There isn’t much information here that the two parties couldn’t have anticipated (though it would be helpful to put the numbers in context — how do Obama’s health care approval numbers compare to, say, Clinton’s in July 1993?)

Nyhan believes that we are not likely to see much of an uptick in Obama’s approval numbers in the near future as a result of his efforts in behalf of health reform, given the intensity of the approaching battle, even though it’s rarely the case that one factor trumps all others in swaying presidential approval ratings. In addition, as chart data Nyhan provides indicates, “the aggregate preference of the electorate for more or less government — what the political scientist James Stimson calls public mood — tends to move in the opposite direction of a dominant governing party.”
So we can give the hand-wringing about approval ratings a rest. It would be more surprising if Obama’s approval numbers didn’t go down. Let the opposition do the chicken little dance, while Dems keep our eyes on the big prize, which is enacting meaningful health care reform. When that historic struggle is won, we can expect an uptick in the president’s approval ratings — and Democratic fortunes in general.

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