When he was sworn in for a second term in January, Barack Obama’s political standing was the best it had been in years. His job approval had climbed into the mid-50s—not extraordinary but solid—and he seemed to have the wind at his back as he called for a new era of liberal governance. Six months later, and it looks as though the winds have shifted against the president. His domestic agenda is stalled in Congress, with no foreseeable action on his proposals for gun control, big government stimulus, cap and trade, or even immigration reform. His job approval is languishing in the mid-40s, and most polls show a plurality of Americans disapprove of the job he is doing.
Why does the president find himself in this position? The polls provide some evidence, and at least the outlines of what to expect as the president continues battling with Congress over the next few months.
The Real Clear Politics average of national polls found Barack Obama hit a postelection high in mid-December, when 54 percent of Americans approved of how he was handling the job. Considering that his average approval rating in the runup to the election was just 48 percent, and that he had averaged 47 percent in both 2011 and 2010, this was a marked bump. When that rating fell below 45 percent in late July 2013, this was a low not seen since mid-2011.
Some pollsters provide detailed cross-tabulations to show how Obama is doing among various sectors of the public. Most notable among these is Gallup, which shows a broad-based decline, including among staunchly Democratic groups. Among young adults, Obama has fallen 11 points since mid-December; among liberals, 15 points; among African Americans, 9 points. His approval rating has declined by 18 points among independents. It is only among Republican groups that Obama’s job rating has held firm, although it was already so low with them, there really wasn’t much room to drop further.
Two years ago, his job approval suffered in large measure because of the economy, but no such explanation suffices here. Though first quarter economic growth was weak, consumer confidence is up since December and employment gains have been decent, if a bit halting. Indeed, the Pew poll finds that the number of people who rate the economy as good or excellent is statistically unchanged since December. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows a decrease from 38 percent to 31 percent of people thinking the economy will be better in the next 12 months, but there has been an equivalent drop in those who think it will be worse (from 28 percent to 21 percent).
There is no denying that more people think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Real Clear Politics also averages “right track/wrong track” polls. For all of Obama’s tenure (and, indeed, for much of George W. Bush’s as well) this number has been net negative—i.e., more people think the country is on the wrong track. But again, early last December was a high-water mark; 41 percent of people then thought the country was on the right track while 51 percent said it was on the wrong track. Today, those numbers have worsened substantially: 29 percent of Americans say we’re on the right track, 62 percent say wrong track.
So if it is not the economy, what is it? There is strong circumstantial evidence that bad news for the president has taken its toll. The slide starts with the sequester, which took effect on March 1, 2013. On February 1, Real Clear Politics had found the president holding steady with 52.5 percent job approval. A month after the sequester took effect, on April 1, his rating had fallen to about 48 percent. It held steady in the high 40s until the run of scandals in the late spring. On May 9, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held its highly publicized Benghazi whistleblower hearing; the next day Lois Lerner admitted that the Internal Revenue Service had improperly targeted Tea Party groups; on June 6, the Guardian published details of the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, leaked to them by Edward Snowden. The cumulative effect of these scandals seems to have been significant. On May 9, the Real Clear Politics average of the polls still had Obama’s job approval at roughly 48 percent; on June 20, two weeks after the Snowden story broke, it was under 46 percent, and it has drifted downward since then.
There are two implications to draw from all this. First, the rough news cycles of recent months seem to have drawn President Obama’s job approval back to its “natural” range. His average approval since he was first inaugurated according to Real Clear Politics is 49 percent, a number that includes the significant bounces he received from his first inaugural, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and his reelection. Take those positive bumps out, and his approval has been fairly close to 47-48 percent for much of his time in office. The fact is he is a highly divisive president: Democrats strongly support him; Republicans strongly oppose him; and swing voters are split. It should not come as a huge surprise that, absent the pro-Obama hoopla of the winter months, the number should drift back downwards.
Second, it is to be expected that his job approval will rebound over time, at least a little. Bad news comes, and then it goes, often replaced by good news. Even if such a bounce never comes his way again, he still should rebound some, for a good portion of his decline over recent months has come among Democratic-leaning groups like young people and minorities. At the very least, when the 2014 midterms are near, expect the Democratic campaign to bring many of these wavering supporters back into the fold.
In the meantime it will be very difficult for Obama to move an agenda through Congress. Dividing the country into two, roughly equal parts might be a fine way to win reelection, but it hardly makes for much of a mandate. The Beltway intelli-gentsia love to complain about gridlock, but the Framers of our Constitution counted on it: When the country is divided as deeply and evenly as it is today, our system of divided powers, federalism, and checks-and-balances is not going to produce much of substance. And so it will probably be for the rest of Obama’s presidency, absent some major change to shift his standing with people who have disapproved of him, more or less, for most of his tenure.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.