Imagine the pain your average Republican must feel when he opens his morning paper. His party is not just riven by internal dissent, but looks like it will nominate a spectacularly unpopular candidate to be its standard-bearer in 2016, with a campaign that gets more farcical every day, bringing ignominy upon a party that has suffered so much already. And now, to add insult to injury, the president he loathes with such fervor is looking ... rather popular with the American public.
Barack Obama's approval ratings are now above 50 percent in daily Gallup tracking, and have been for weeks. He's risen higher in public esteem than he's been in three years. Every poll taken in the last month and a half shows him with a positive approval rating.
You might say that it's no great achievement to be above 50 percent. After all, didn't Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan leave office with ratings around 65 percent? Indeed they did. But even Clinton's presidency occurred in a different era, when party polarization was not as firm as it is now. These days—and in all likelihood for some time to come—if a president can stay at 50 percent, he should be counted a remarkable success.
That polarization runs through everything Americans think, know, and learn about the president. There's always been a large gap between how members of the president's party view him and how members of the other party view him, but if you look over the history for which we have polling data (going back to Eisenhower in the 1950s), you see what has changed over time. With just a couple of exceptions, those in the president's party usually give him around 80 percent approval, give or take a bit. For instance, Ronald Reagan averaged 83 percent among Republicans and George H.W. Bush averaged 82 percent, while Bill Clinton averaged 80 percent among Democrats.
It's in the opinions of the other party that there has been a transformation. Presidents used to routinely get 30 or 40 percent approval from the other party; it would only dip down into the 20s when things were going really badly. But George W. Bush's presidency and then Barack Obama's have been characterized by levels of disapproval from the other side we haven't seen since the depth of the Watergate scandal. This is one of the signal characteristics of public opinion in our time: negative partisanship, in which Americans define their political identity not by their affection for their own party, but by their hatred for the other guys.
In fact, Obama is the first president since polls existed to have never gone above 25 percent approval from the other side, not even in the honeymoon glow of the first days of his presidency. He could defeat ISIS, make America secure and prosperous, save a baby from a burning building, then cure cancer and invent a pill that would let you eat all the ice cream you want without gaining any weight, and no more than a handful of Republicans would ever say they think he's doing a good job.
Which means that if his ratings have gone up, it's because he's doing better among everyone who isn't a Republican. Why is that? There are multiple reasons, but one factor that always plays a key part in presidential approval is the strength of the economy, though presidents get both more credit and more blame for it than they deserve. And today, even if income growth is lagging much more than we'd like, unemployment is under 5 percent and there have been 72 consecutive months of job growth, the longest streak on record. There are plenty of things wrong with the American economy, but the most visible thing to many people (apart from gas prices, which are near historic lows) is whether you can find a job if you need one, and today you can.
And then there's the biggest political story of the year, the Republican presidential nomination campaign. Put simply, it's been an utter catastrophe for Republicans—and a marked contrast with the guy they're all vying to replace. Where Obama is calm and reasonable, the Republican candidates are shrill and panicky. Where he's thoughtful and informed, they're impulsive and ignorant. Republicans are constantly trying to argue that Obama is frivolous—he played a round of golf while something important was happening somewhere!—but you won't catch him arguing with his opponents about the size of their hands or or attacking their spouses. You can disagree with Obama on matters of substance, but he's nothing like the clowns Republicans are deciding between.
So juxtaposed with the freak show of the Republican primaries, Obama looks better all the time. And ironically, of all the Republicans who ran for president this year, only one almost never singled out Obama for heaps of abuse: Donald Trump. Trump says that our leaders are idiots, but he includes all kind of people in that criticism. He barely talks about Obama, unlike the candidates he has vanquished, who regularly asserted not just that Obama is a terrible president but that he he has intentionally tried to destroy America, a bit of talk-radio lunacy many of them incorporated into their rhetoric back when it seemed like you could win the nomination by being the one who says he hates the president more than anyone else.
Yet none of the Republicans make for a clearer contrast with Obama than Trump, the buffoonish vulgarian who wouldn't know class if hit him in the head with a gold-plated hammer. And while the Republicans talk endlessly about what a cesspool of misery and despair America is, Obama looks to be chugging toward the end of his presidency with most Americans thinking he's done a pretty good job.