Obama's Fall by the Numbers

Barack Obama is now the tenth most popular president of the last twelve at this stage of his presidency (six months since his inauguration).

A president with huge majorities in both houses of Congress, an adoring national media, enormous and constant media exposure, a fractured and rudderless opposition party, and bold plans to restructure America (change we can believe in) should be doing much better. Why has the public cooled to Obama and his policies, and how low can Obama’s approval ratings fall? Will a further big drop  in Obama’s approval numbers derail his plans for cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate and health care reform ?

The Rasmussen Report surveys 500 voters each night and summarizes a three-day average of its results each morning. There is statistical noise in the daily results, but trend lines are apparent. In the first weeks of his administration, Obama, who won the presidency by a popular vote margin of 53% to 46%, hit overall approval ratings as high as 65%. The approval-disapproval  score peaked at a 41% margin just before the inauguration (69%-28%) and a 35% margin (64% to 29% ) after the inauguration. Among those who strongly approve, or strongly disapprove, the peak percentage for strong approval was 45%, and Obama’s margin peaked at 30% (44% strongly approving, 14% strongly disapproving). Today, those numbers are 51%-47% net approval-disapproval, and 29%-34% among those feeling strongly about it. In other words, about 1 in 4 who supported Obama have switched sides, and the intensity of anti-Obama sentiment has grown substantially (more than doubled).

Almost every other survey has also shown a substantial decline in Obama’s approval ratings. The Democratic leaning group Democracy Corps has a new survey with Obama’s approval at 50% and disapproval at 43%, the narrowest gap since January.

In the last two years of the Bush presidency, approval ratings for the president dropped into the high 20s, low 30s. Disapproval ratings  were at least double that. It is unlikely that Obama’s numbers will sink to the Bush level, at least not soon. Nonetheless, if unemployment hits 10% and keeps moving higher, and if the budget deficit numbers projected for 2009 and beyond keep growing, further erosion in Obama’s numbers is certain, probably into the low 40% approval range.

The president retains substantial and often fierce loyalty among a core group: liberals, union members, and minorities (African Americans, Hispanics, Jews). Many others who are nervous about one policy of the administration or another still want the president to succeed. At the moment, slightly less than a third of the public  seems to be strongly in Obama’s corner, at least a third firmly opposed, and the middle third breaking about 2 to 1 for the president. This group is the one that can move away from the president, and given the far greater unpopularity of some of Obama’s key initiatives than of Obama personally, this could occur sooner rather than later.