President Barack Obama waves to guests as he arrives for a speech on Oct. 2, 2014 in Evanston, Illinois.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

Why Obama’s increased national support matters

Updated
Rush Limbaugh appeared on “Fox News Sunday” about a month ago and mocked the president’s standing in the polls. “Barack Obama’s approval is in the 30s,” the right-wing host said.
An improving economy is putting Barack Obama back in the game, boosting the president and his party in a striking turnaround from their devastating midterm losses.
 
Americans approve of the president’s job performance by 50-44 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, a remarkable 9-point gain in approval and a 10-point drop in disapproval just since December. It’s his best rating in a year and a half, and matches his previous best one-time advance, after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in spring 2011.
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The usual caveats certainly apply – it’s only one poll, and no other major national survey puts the president’s approval rating at 50% – but it comes on the heels of recent poll results from CBS, Pew, and CNN, all of which show Obama’s support growing steadily in recent weeks.
 
When one survey shows a small increase, it’s easy to overlook. When several credible pollsters show a significant increase, there’s reason to believe the president has seen a genuine bump in his overall support. As FiveThirtyEight put it the other day, “The rebound In Obama’s approval is real.”
 
Right about now, I imagine there’s a small army of Democratic campaign operatives asking themselves, “This couldn’t have happened in October?” Indeed, Brian Beutler noted on Friday that if the midterm elections were held now, the combination of lower gas prices and the president’s increased backing “might have saved the Democrats’ skin” and prevented major GOP gains.
 
Of course, it’s obviously too late for Dems’ 2014 hopes, but the bump in Obama’s poll numbers matters nevertheless.
 
It matters, for example, that the White House’s assumptions about the midterm elections are looking pretty good right now. For Republicans, the 2014 cycle was a brutal public condemnation of Obama and his agenda, but folks in the West Wing assumed that the election results were borne of public disgust with inaction. The president has taken some pretty bold steps since the midterms to advance his agenda, and by the GOP’s reasoning, the public should be disgusted. Evidently, it’s not – the more Obama ignores the election results, the more popular he becomes.
 
I’d also argue that it matters to political science: there should be some correlation between performance and public approval. If the president succeeded in advancing a bunch of popular and worthwhile ideas, against a backdrop of improved economic conditions, and his numbers were unaffected, it would suggest public attitudes are simply disconnected, in an unhealthy way, to what policymakers actually do in office.
 
Nate Cohn, meanwhile, highlights the larger electoral impact in advance of the 2016 cycle.
The balance of evidence suggests that the break-even point for the presidential party’s odds of victory is at or nearly 50 percent approval. If the only thing you knew about the 2016 election was Mr. Obama’s approval rating on Election Day, you might guess that the Democrats had a 37 percent chance of holding the White House with a 46 percent rating – rather than a 23 percent chance with a 41 percent rating. The difference between 41 and 46 might be worth between one and two percentage points to the Democratic candidate in 2016 – the difference between a close race and a modest but clear Republican victory.
 
Mr. Obama’s surge among Hispanic voters might be particularly telling. It is a sign that Democratic-leaning voters dissatisfied with Mr. Obama’s performance might not be so disillusioned that they can’t be lured back to the Democrats by the issues and messages that brought them to the party in the first place. The president’s ratings among liberals and Democrats remain mediocre – perhaps only in the low 70s and low 80s, respectively – suggesting that there are additional, low-hanging opportunities for Mr. Obama and his party’s next nominee.
In case it’s not obvious, a lot can (and almost certainly will) happen to Obama’s support in the coming months, and there’s no way to say with confidence whether the president’s numbers will start to fade, continue to grow, or remain roughly where they are now. In historical terms, Obama is in vastly better shape than George W. Bush was at this point in his presidency, not nearly as good a shape as Bill Clinton was as his seventh year got underway, and roughly in line with Ronald Reagan’s support at this point in his second term.
 
Regardless, as Obama gets ready to deliver his penultimate State of the Union, he and his aides have to be pleased to have the political winds at their backs for a change.
 

Barack Obama and Polling

Why Obama's increased national support matters

Updated