President Barack Obama laughs as the crowd sings "Happy Birthday" to him at the start of his remarks to the Young African Leaders Initiative event at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, Aug. 3, 2016, in Washington.
Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Obama’s popularity belies Trump/Pence rhetoric

If you watched either of the first two general-election debates, you saw a Republican ticket that’s absolutely convinced that President Obama is a spectacular failure, creating an appetite for dramatic national change.

There’s quite a bit of evidence, however, that the American mainstream doesn’t see the Obama presidency the way Donald Trump and Mike Pence do. Politico noted this week:
President Barack Obama’s job approval rating hit 55 percent in a new poll released Thursday, the highest that number has been at any point during his second term in office.

The CNN/ORC poll released Thursday marks the seventh consecutive month that Obama’s job approval numbers have been above 50 percent. His job approval number is up 4 percentage points over the previous CNN/ORC poll and is up 11 points relative to a similar CNN/ORC poll conducted in mid-September, 2015.
This is obviously just one poll, but we can also look at recent averages, which point in the same direction. The Huffington Post’s polling aggregator shows the president’s job-approval numbers topping 50% and “above water” – approval outpacing disapproval – since early March.

This matches the support Obama enjoyed around his second inaugural, and it’s the longest sustained levels of support since his first year in office. According to Gallup data, Obama is also slightly more popular now than Ronald Reagan was at this point in the Republican icon’s second term.

As we’ve discussed before, the standard pushback to reports like these is that the president is prohibited from seeking re-election, so while his public backing may matter to his long-term legacy, its current salience is limited. I continue to think this understates matters.

Remember, one of the standard Republican arguments in 2016 is that Hillary Clinton, if elected, would effectively offer a “third term” for Obama. With unemployment at 5%, the uninsured rate reaching the lowest levels on record, and the president’s approval rating looking pretty good, there are more than a few Americans who are likely to respond to the charge by saying, “That doesn’t sound that bad.”

At the same time, as Rachel has explained on the show, Obama is hitting the campaign trial with great vigor on Hillary Clinton’s behalf – more so than any retiring president in the modern political era. The more popular he is, the more effective the president is as a cheerleader for his party’s nominee.

It’s easy to forget, but around two years ago at this time, Obama expected to keep a relatively low profile in the 2016 election cycle. The Democratic nominee, he predicted in November 2014, whomever he or she might be, is “probably not gonna be looking at me to campaign too much.”

Obama’s approval rating was nearly 10 points lower at that point than it is now.

The chatter about 2016 being a “change election” has long appeared dubious, and as the president’s support climbs, it’s that much more difficult to believe the electorate is desperate for a radical departure.

Barack Obama and Polling

Obama's popularity belies Trump/Pence rhetoric