Articles and Analysis


Lessons in Declining Approval?

Topics: Approval Ratings , Barack Obama , Economic stimulus , Nate Silver

From the left side of the commentariat, we have a new conventional wisdom: Bipartisanship is a bust. As Andrew Sullivan summarizes this morning:

Paul Krugman, who wants a partisan war on the GOP, and Matt Yglesias, who thinks that bipartisanship's impossible in the modern era, and Tina Brown, who thinks there's no longterm downside to Democratic ownership of hefty social spending, have now come out swinging.

Nate Silver brings job approval data to bear on the issue. Observing a 6-point drop in Obama's "approval rating" as measured by three pollsters, he concludes:

The benefits of "bipartisanship" are dubious. The public says they want bipartisanship, and a large majority of the public believes that Obama acted in a bipartisan fashion during the stimulus debate. And yet, his approval ratings fell significantly during this period.

Really? Let's take a closer look. Silver produced the following table to compare the Obama's "approval ratings" between "the immediate aftermath of his inauguration" and late last week:


First, let's be clear about the timing. The "before" snapshot covers both the "immediate aftermath" and several days during the inaugural festivities. Only Gallup's numbers come from interviews conducted entirely after the swearing-in (1/21-23). The Rasmussen result above derives from interviews conducted for two days prior and the night of the inauguration (1/18-20). The DailyKos/Research 2000 rating (which measures favorability, not job approval) comes from interviews conducted over the course of the week, Monday through Thursday (1/19-22).

But whether just before or immediately after the inauguration, the key point is the same: The period is one in which news coverage is as positive as a president gets -- ever.   Virtually all news sources, from network anchors to conservative talking heads, reported on the inauguration in glowing terms. The focus was on the history, the massive crowds, the celebration, not the usual back-and-forth on policy.

The drop that followed is what we should expect as the bon mots of the inauguration give way to the normal back-and-forth of governing. Republican and conservative leaders begin to criticize Obama. Their followers -- Republicans, Republican-leaning independents and even some conservative Democrats -- start to feel less positive about Obama. That's politics 101. LIterally.

Look at the these results by party and you see exactly that pattern. Obama's ratings dropped by an average 3.3 percentage points among Democrats, by 5.7 points among independents and by 10.0 points among Republicans. As Scott Rasmussen put it, this change amounts to "a natural reaction as the unifying nature of the inauguration gives way to the challenging realities of governing in times of a challenging economy."


But evidence of the limits of bipartisanship? Let's remember that Obama holds an overall approval rating that most polls now peg in the mid-sixty percent range, after winning with roughly 52.9% of the votes cast. Doesn't the aggregate approval rating, including approval from roughly a third of Republicans, say something about the benefits of the "bipartisan" messaging? And how will those Republican and Republican leaning independents respond to harsher partisan rhetoric from the President?

Moreover, to the extent that Obama's ratings declined, both Gallup and Rasmussen -- the only two measuring his job approval on a daily basis -- show that decline occurring by the end of inauguration week, well before Republicans ramped up their criticism of the stimulus bill. So as evidence of a reaction to the stimulus debate, these data fall short.

If there is a lesson in this particular decline in approval ratings, it has little to do with the stimulus plan. I'm not sure I see a lesson here, unless Obama can find a way to hold an inauguration every week.

As for the strategy of how to turn Obama's apparent "upper hand" on the stimulus debate into the 60 Senate votes necessary to get the package passed in the Senate, we need to remember two important but conflicting strains of public opinion: On the one hand, most Americans want the government to do something to stimulate the economy. As today's new numbers from Gallup show, more than half (51%) say the think passing "an economic stimulus plan" is "critically important," another 29% rate it "important but not critical." They tend to respond well to any proposal that promises to create new jobs.

On the other, a majority of Americans are wary new of government spending. As last week's CBS News poll showed, the number that think "reducing taxes" will "do more to get the U.S. out of the current recession" (62%) is nearly four times the number who prefer "increasing government spending" (22%). And the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found twice as many Americans worried that the government would "spend too much money" (60%) rather than "too little" (33%) in an effort to boost the economy.

Any strategy to get a stimulus package passed has to consider both strains. Like it or not, you can be sure that "moderate" Senators in competitive states looking ahead to their next reelection campaign are doing just that.

PS: Thanks to Scott Rasmussen and Gallup's Jeff Jones for the cross-tab data cited above. DailyKos posts cross-tabs for their surveys here.

Update (2/10): Nate Silver responds here. I am traveling today to a lecture that I am giving tonight. I'm hoping to add a few thoughts when time allows.



Well said, Mark. I thought Nate's response was a bit overblown, particularly given his nuanced discussion of post-convention bubbles during the 2008 election season. Regarding the contents of the stimulus, there have been some massively differing results between different polling agencies. It is amazing what results a small change in wording can yield on a problem as difficult to understand (in the sense that nobody really knows what the right approach is) as the stimulus.


I think it's interesting that Independents still are closer to Democrats than Republicans, consistent with the later Bush years (see Gary Jacobson's data http://voteview.com/polarization_UCSD_Divider_Uniter_Chapter_1_2.htm). But they also seem to have swung more to the middle, consistent with earlier times. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over time.



The fact that there has been so much outrage by Democrats that Obama has been too bipartisan over the stimulus bill merely indicates he has once again successfully employed his favorite political strategy: the "rope a dope." In the end, the Republicans look like they have been playing petty politics at a time of grave national emergency, Obama has apparently won passage of a stimulus bill very similar in size and scope to what he asked for initially, and he has largely come off looking like he was above the fray the whole time. If this is a sign of things to come, I say let the President continue his "bipartisanship":



Vicente Duque:

Mark, Thanks for polls, numbers, analysis.
My post is very naive and a little foolish, but contains powerful truths :

American Political Arena :
When a Ship is sinking, fights among passengers, tripulation and captain do not help.

Of Course America is not sinking. It is just a metaphor. But there is too much political foolishness, politicking, politickering, political bickering.

Economics is an experimental Science. Nobody knows what is going to happen with the stimulus package, and it can be fixed, modified and changed on the way.

Like when you go on a trip in the mountains with many mules carrying a big cargo. You have to arrange the cargo, packages, bags, loads and boxes many times on the way to your destination.

"Everybody hates the King and loves the Prince" :

This is a saying of the Middle Ages. Everybody loves the New President. But as time goes on and People do nor receive the posts, positions, gifts, budget appropriations and moneys, then people become angry with the King or President.

Many people think that it is so easy as to read a History of Economics Book or a Theoretical Book on Reactivation. But economic tricks that worked well in the past may not work so well today, and viceversa : What worked poorly in the past may work beautifully today.



Vicente Duque



Re: Rasmussen's "a natural reaction as the unifying nature of the inauguration gives way to the challenging realities of governing in times of a challenging economy."

At the Roper Center site scroll down to Past Presidential Performance...

This shows no temporary inaugural unification for George H.W., Clinton, and George W. It shows late February scores better than January for all three.

Nick Panagakis


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