Is Barack Obama about to have a revival? Peter Beinart argued the other day that he is, for three reasons: his actions on immigration have improved his standing among Hispanics, the economy is picking up steam, and there's a natural swing of the pendulum in press coverage as reporters tire of writing the current story after a while and look for change and new developments. An Obama comeback would fit the bill.
I think Beinart is probably right, and the economy is the main reason; it swamps every other consideration in evaluating the president. We could have some major shock that upends the momentum it has been gaining, but if things proceed for the next two years on the trajectory they're on, the Obama presidency will be one of the best for job creation in recent history. But it's also important to understand that an Obama revival, should it happen, is going to look different than that of other presidents.
Among recent two-term presidents, George W. Bush left office with approval ratings in the 20's, Bill Clinton's were in the 60's, and Ronald Reagan's were in the 50s (Reagan's might have been higher given the health of the economy at the time, but he never fully recovered from the Iran-Contra scandal). But no matter how well the economy does, Obama's approval ratings will probably have a ceiling somewhere in the 50s.
That's because when it comes to presidential approval we're in an unprecedentedly polarized era, when the opposition party's voters are never going to approve of the president except in extraordinary circumstances. In Gallup data, 10 out of the 12 most polarized years in presidential approval—measured by the difference between the president's approval among his own party's voters and the other party's voters—belonged to Barack Obama and George W. Bush (the other two came in the re-election years for Clinton and Reagan, when the country focused on the election).
You might argue that it's because Bush and Obama were both so personally nasty to the other side, more so than any presidents before them. I've certainly heard that about Obama from plenty of conservatives. But it's flatly ridiculous, and I think even they know it. What has actually happened is that partisan identification has sorted and sharpened, and people on both sides are even less willing to give the other side's guy credit for anything. Bush's approval among Democrats was in the single digits for most of the last three years of his presidency, and Obama's approval among Republicans has hovered around 10 percent (sometimes even lower) since 2010.
What that means is that if Obama has a revival in approval, it'll look not like the 65 percent Clinton had at the end of his term or Reagan had just before Iran-Contra, but more like 50 or 55 percent. That represents most everyone from his party, and a little over half of independents. There are actually very few true independents; most lean to one party or another. Obama won't get approval from the Republican-leaning ones, but he can get the Democratic-leaning ones, and if things are going well, most of the true independents (who represent maybe 10 percent of the population). Add that all up and it'll come out to something like that 55 percent number.
If he ever gets to 55 percent, we can declare the end of his term a huge success in winning public esteem. And that may be a semi-permanent change; don't expect the next president to get higher than that for any length of time, either.