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Searching for a Silver Lining

4:02 PM, Mar 14, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Yesterday the Journal published a piece by pollsters Scott Rasmussen and Doug Schoen examining the decline in Obama's approval rating since his inauguration. They write:

It is simply wrong for commentators to continue to focus on President Barack Obama's high levels of popularity, and to conclude that these are indicative of high levels of public confidence in the work of his administration. Indeed, a detailed look at recent survey data shows that the opposite is most likely true. The American people are coming to express increasingly significant doubts about his initiatives, and most likely support a different agenda and different policies from those that the Obama administration has advanced.

Nate Silver disputes this. According to Silver, Obama's numbers have declined but his "approval ratings are now fairly average for someone 50 days or so into his Presidency...A well-rounded commentary on Barack Obama popularity would take note of this context." Rasmussen polling shows Obama's approval at 56 percent, while the Pollster.com average has the number at 64.6 percent 59 percent*. On January 20, Pollster.com had the average Obama approval number at 70 percent. As Silver says, "In his first year in office, a President's approval ratings typically decline by about 3 points from the time of his inauguration, while his disapproval ratings typically climb by about 12 points." Rasmussen shows a larger decline, but even by the Pollster.com average, the decline in Obama's numbers -- six points in two months -- would seem to justify the overall conclusion drawn by Rasmussen and Schoen, i.e. Obama's poll numbers are falling back to earth.

Silver acts as though this decline was a foregone conclusion. As the title of his post reads, "Yes, Obama's Approval Ratings Are Declining. What Did You Expect?" But back in January, Silver seemed to expect that Obama's numbers would rise -- not fall. Silver wrote on January 18, "My guess is that when Gallup comes out with its first post-inauguration approval ratings for Obama later this week, it will show him with about 76 percent approval." That didn't happen, instead Obama's approval fell to 62 percent.

Obama's numbers put him right about where you'd expect based on historical precedent -- which is worse than Silver expected. It seems disingenuous for Silver to now claim that "this is all completely predictable" and that the only conclusion these numbers justify is that "most Americans support most parts of Obama's agenda."

*The 64 percent figure was Obama's favorable number, now changed to show the more relevant 59 percent approval number, which has declined by five points since Obama's inauguration.