Both Joseph and Paul wonder whether President’s Obama’s public approval is slipping. In these types of discussions I would argue that we need to make a distinction between approval for Obama—a wildly popular celebrity—and approval for Obamism—the President’s policies and agenda. The connection between the two might be both more tenuous than we imagine.
We often make judgment’s about a President’s approval based on favorability and job approval rating polls, despite the fact that they are quite different metrics. Obama’s favorability is consistently a few points higher than his job approval ratings because even people that do not like his policies like the man. Indeed, voters tend to put less emphasis on the actual issues than they do in how feel about a President.
Consider, for example, the issue that is consistently regarded as one of the most important: the economy. “The economy, stupid,” was a phrase often quoted during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign that implied that the economy was a determinative issue for voters. If so, they soon changed their minds. Despite being an era of Dot-Com millionaires and a booming economy, voters were extremely pessimistic during Clinton’s first term. A CNN poll taken in April 1996 found:
–69 percent of those surveyed thought the economic outlook was either mixed or negative.
–72 percent rated the economic conditions only fair (52%) or poor (20%).
–52 percent considered the country’s economic problems to be the most important decision in the Presidential race.
Surprisingly, though Democrats often claim that Clinton was responsible for the economic growth during the 1990s, opinion polls at the time disagreed. Only 28 percent of people surveyed believed that Clinton’s economic policies improved the economy while 12 percent believed he was hurting the economy. The vast majority—58 percent—said his policies were not having an effect either way. And yet Clinton remained popular and was easily reelected that year by a citizenry who both claimed that the country’s economic problems were the most important consideration and that Clinton was having either no effect or a negative effect on them. Clinton—the man—was more popular than Clintonism—the policies.
Another example is President George W. Bush. Take a look at this chart. On September 11, 2001, Bush’s approval ratings hovered around 56 percent, significantly higher than the average for Clinton during his eight year tenure. Yet one month later, when Operation Enduring Freedom began, approval for Bush jumped to over 90 percent. Even Bush’s most ardent supporters would have to admit that he didn’t become 40 percent more favorable in that month. It was not the President that changed but our national mood—and our emotional response to the Presidency.
Similarly, Bush’s sharp decline in favorability was disproportional to his actual policies. Unlike Clinton, who remained personally popular despite his policies, Bush began to evoke a negative emotional response even from those who approved of his policies. The electorate in general began to actively dislike Bush—which caused his job approval to spiral to remarkable lows.
The opposite effect is occuring with Obama. He was elected by people who had a strong emotional response to him as a person (or, more accurately, as a celebrity brand). Unless that changes quite radically—and I don’t think it will—we can expect to have him around until 2016. Obamism may be falling out of favor, but the brand called Obama is still very popular.