Why President Obama Can't Get Any Love From the Public On the Economy

One common axiom about presidential popularity is that presidents get more credit than they deserve for the good times and more blame than they deserve for the bad times. But Barack Obama is probably wondering why he can't get any credit at all. Today job numbers for the month of September were released, and the news looks excellent: 248,000 jobs were created, and the unemployment rate is now 5.9 percent. Since Steve Benen regularly updates his chart on job growth during the Obama administration, we'll use his:

That looks pretty good. In fact, we've now had 55 consecutive months of private sector job growth, the longest stretch on record (weirdly, that job-killing Obamacare hasn't actually killed all the jobs). But now let's look at another chart, this one from Huffpost Pollster:

Not so good! Not good at all, in fact. Obama crossed from net approval to disapproval in October 2009, and never got back into positive territory. The latest polls have his approval on the economy at around 40 percent. So why can't Obama get some love?

A couple of reasons, I think. The first is a practical problem: despite the healthy job growth, incomes aren't rising. A good economy isn't just one where you've got a job, it's one where you've got a job and you're being paid what you're worth. The income benefits of the recovery have all gone to the top. Millions of people are also still digging themselves out of the holes they got into during the Great Recession, whether it was foreclosure, credit card debt, or what have you. Even if you now have a reasonably good job, if you lost your home and cashed out your 401K on the way, it isn't like things are looking spectacular.

Second, the recession may have produced a lingering insecurity. Unless you're in your 90s, you never saw anything like it before, and it becomes hard to be optimistic about the economy with that memory so fresh, even if things have gotten better. That could be making people less willing to believe that things are terrific and give the president credit.

Finally, there's the hardening of partisanship. Most Republicans despise Barack Obama so much that he could personally pull their children from a burning building, and they'd still think that he's a jerk. No matter how many jobs get created, they're never going to tell pollsters that they approve of the job he's doing, on the economy or anything else. That means that there's a hard limit on what Obama's approval could ever be even in the most fantastic circumstances, a limit that's probably somewhere around 60 percent.

On the other hand, if the economy continues to steadily improve over the next two years, it'll probably be very helpful for whichever Democrat is nominated to succeed him. So he can take some comfort in that. 

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