Few things excite a political reporter more than polls. They're the sports statistics of the electoral grind, giving any argument that little extra oomph. For people not necessarily known for their numerical prowess, a cleverly placed percentage point is the perfect condiment for any story. Heck, polls can even be the story.
Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for those alluring little numbers can end badly. In election off-season it's not so noticeable, with polls slowing to a relative trickle and our attentions focused elsewhere—or so far in the future that the ambitious dreams of Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton dancing in our heads outweigh any margins of error. But the polls are still there. Exhibit A: presidential approval ratings.
Public-opinion polls released in the past few weeks have come together to cast Mean Girls-like aspersions on President Obama's popularity. According to today’s Gallup tracker, the president’s popularity is at 41 percent. A CNN poll from three days ago finds the same. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll tallies public opinion of Obama at 42 percent positive. There's no doubt that approval ratings in the low 40s range aren't desirable. There is also no doubt, however, that coverage of these latest numbers has been overblown, and that "restoring credibility," being less of a "detached manager," and building a kick-ass health-care website are unlikely to solve the White House's woes. The president’s polling numbers are only significant when given the appropriate context.
Before we explain Obama's sinking approval ratings, let's first acknowledge how serious our polling addiction is—and why. In July 2009, CNN published an article noting that the outlet's polling revealed Obama's approval rating had dropped to 57 percent. In early June, his approval rating had been 62 percent, meaning the drop had been among the "biggest losses" of his entire presidency. In the same month, Politico reported that the public was losing faith in the president, based on insights gleaned from their own numbers. USA Today said the same thing after releasing their poll. In January 2010, CBS News reported that their results constituted "a rebuke to a political leader who championed the slogan, 'change we need.'" In June 2010, NBC News signaled that their poll—which marked the first time Obama's disapproval ratings outperformed his approval ratings—showed that the president had been "bruised and bloodied by the events of the past few months, although not yet knocked down."
News organizations have a vested interest in promoting these low approval ratings, and shuffling percentage points is now seen as currency in the art of generating news and narratives. There's no stopping media outlets from using their news pages as polling press-release dumps, so we need to at least arm ourselves with the handfuls of salt necessary to make any presidential rating a useful barometer of public opinion.
First, presidential approval ratings are prisoners of economics. When the economy is up, the public likes the president. If the economy is down, the public thinks the president is the devil incarnate. No president reflects this reality better than Bill Clinton, whose second-term approval ratings were a treasure trove of sunshine and puppy GIFs thanks to our country's generally rockin' financial state despite, you know, his being impeached for perjury. In October of this year, the Gallup Economic Confidence Index dropped 16 points, to -35. Gallup hadn't seen a month-long drop that steep since it started tracking economic confidence five years ago. Obama would have needed a miracle to see his approval stay steady if the public is that steamed about the economy. Add in an unemployment rating slightly upended thanks to the shutdown, slashed food stamps, and the continuing pains of the sequester, and it seems unlikely that Obama's approval rating is going to be on the upswing anytime soon, regardless of his perceived leadership skills or the technological fate of his signature legislative accomplishment.
Most important, presidential approval ratings are tied closely to the public’s trust in government writ large, as shown by many a political scientist. Trust in government has been steadily declining for the past few decades, but it’s gotten especially bad lately, what with the never-ending array of fiscal cliffs and shutdowns and tepid economic growth and the general atmosphere of political calamity. According to Pew’s data, trust in government is hovering around 19 percent. If only 12 percent of Americans—as drawn from that same Pew poll—think that the federal government is doing well, it makes sense that the most visible example of this large and unwieldy organism would not have many groupies either.
President Obama isn’t alone in facing depressed approval ratings due to general malaise with the economy and government. If you step back and give these ratings their correct context, it turns out that President Obama is a success story amid a cast of political characters universally despised by polling respondents everywhere. Twenty-seven percent of Americans approve of House Speaker John Boehner. The same number think well of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Senator Mitch McConnell earns the respect of 22 percent of Americans. Nancy Pelosi is liked by 35 percent of the public right now. Six percent of responders to a recent Public Policy Polling survey approve of Congress as a whole. Forty percent of people think congressional Democrats are doing a good job, and 23 percent think the same of congressional Republicans. When asked what the biggest problem facing our nation is, 33 percent of Gallup respondents say dysfunctional government—the highest percentage recorded by the polling firm since 1939. Sixty percent of Americans think we need a third party because the Democrats and Republicans both suck. That’s the highest number that Gallup poll has tracked in the decade they’ve been asking it.
Americans like hemorrhoids, jury duty, dog poop, hipsters, and their mother-in-law more than they like Congress. Sure, 41 percent approval isn’t worth celebrating, but Obama can’t do much to counteract the fact that the public is miffed at Congress, and as an extension, government (which happens to include Obama by proxy). He can’t do much to change the languid pace of economic growth either, despite the fact that the public assumes that a magical “clap-on, clap-off” economy button is included in his arsenal of constitutional powers. After accounting for this mess of factors, it’s hard to put Obama’s approval rating in the fall of Rome frame it’s been forced into.