The latest CNN/Opinion Research poll of national adults finds Barack Obama's job approval split -- 48 percent approve and 48 percent disapprove. This is up substantially from September, when the poll found 42 percent of adults approving and 54 percent disapproving The shift was enough to prompt a short item from Politico, with this opening: "President Barack Obama may be staging a comeback in the eyes of the American people ."
So, is Obama coming back? I say, probably not. That CNN poll in September turned out to be an outlier relative to the polls released subsequently, so it's hard to identify just how much real movement there has been since September if you're just looking at CNN. Here is how I would approach the task.
Start with Gallup, which is very bouncy day-to-day, but week-to-week it is pretty stable, and for the last few months has not shown much substantial change.
For the last two months, President Obama's approval rating in Gallup has been consistently between 44 and 46 percent while his disapproval rating has been between 46 percent and 48 percent. I don't see much by way of notable change here. The same is basically true in the Rasmussen tracking poll, which right now is on the higher end for the president (who today registers 50 percent approval for the first time since November). Even so, the president generally falls between 44 percent and 48 percent approval, with 50 percent to 56 percent disapproving.
So, the two daily tracking polls have not moved much. How about all the polls generally? For that, the best source of information is the RealClearPolitics presidential job approval track:
My interpretation of this graph is that Obama's job approval rating has been the mark of steadiness for the last four months or so, never falling below 44 percent and never rising above 47 percent. It's his disapproval rating that has declined a little bit. Around the end of September, it topped out at nearly 51 percent, but in three months it has declined by about three points, to around 48 percent.
So, I'd say this is the real trend -- it's not that the president's approval rating has ticked up, it's that his disapproval rating has ticked down, at least a bit. What might explain this? I can think of a few reasons: the Gulf oil spill seemed to hurt his numbers in the summer and fall, with that out of the news his opposition has softened a bit; the drumbeat of the partisan campaign pushed people who were undecided about him to make a negative judgment, but with that gone some have drifted back to undecided.
Any of these items could account for this minor shift, and none of them, I think, are of long-term significance. The macro trend, I would say, has essentially been flat for the last few months -- as Americans have developed fairly stable opinions of the 44th president by this point that probably are not easily dislodged. In the long term, the way the president gets his numbers up will be to convince the country that he is a good steward of the economy, a view most of his fellow citizens do not hold at the moment. This is why the tax cut deal was such a sensible compromise for President Obama to make, despite the criticism he received from his left flank.