Obama’s job approval rating is enjoying some significant improvement. Since the end of December, several polls have shown the president’s job approval ratings recovering and even edging into positive territory.
The press is quite giddy over the increased public support for the president. Their enthusiasm is not entirely divorced from the fact that renewed public faith will only compel Obama to be a more combative liberal figure in his final two years in office.
“The president will enter the House chamber Tuesday night for his sixth State of the Union address riding a wave of confidence driven by an improving economy and brightening public approval ratings,” The Washington Post reported. “And he seems as defiant as ever.”
White House allies have been buoyed by the president’s newly vigorous posture. After two years in which the White House often found itself on the defensive amid a series of domestic and international crises, the president and his advisers have made “a tactical change,” said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, a liberal think tank. “They’re doing a better job at creating attention around the fact that they actually have a plan, a series of things they want to do.”
Guy Benson thinks that the rebound in the significance of the president’s job approval rating has been inflated by the press.
The [most recent Fox News] poll also showed that while nearly two-thirds of Americans say it still feels like the economy is in a recession, nearly six-in-ten are at least somewhat optimistic about the direction things are heading. The recent spate of good economic news is starting to sink in, it appears, despite some mixed indicators.
But even if the bounce is shallower than most analysts have noted, Obama plans to make the most of it. As Obama’s Democratic allies in the media have noted, the tax increases that Obama will propose tonight are not serious policy proposals so much as they are political positioning statements. The president would be far more cautious about adopting aggressively liberal stances on issues like tax rates that might handicap his party’s eventual 2016 nominee if he were not buoyed by a boost in the polls.
So why is this happening now when just months ago voters turned out to deliver control of both chambers of Congress to Republicans?
Real Clear Politics analyst Carl Cannon submitted a number of theories; the marked improvement in America’s economic growth, a refusal to introduce combat troops into Iraq and Syria, and the president’s navigation of thorny racial issues over the course of 2014 among them.
“It’s the first time in Obama’s presidency when he has the economic wind at his back as opposed to in his face,” Democratic strategist Chris Lehane recently told The Hill. “Nothing drives his job approval more than perception of whether the economy is going in the right direction or the wrong direction.”
But the most compelling reason for Obama’s job approval bounce is the absolute collapse of gasoline prices over the course of the last three months. Even The New Republic’s Brian Beutler noted that falling crude prices translating into lower costs at the pump are almost singularly responsible for the perception among average Americans that the economic recovery is finally taking hold. “Absent falling gas prices, the recovery would still feel pretty anemic to workers,” he wrote.
Buoyed by higher job approval ratings driven primarily by fickle commodity prices, Obama can be expected to deliver a fiery progressive stem-winder for his sixth State of the Union address tonight. Similarly, the predictable reaction in the press will be to laud The Obama Comeback. The progressive champion they hoped they had elected in 2008 will miraculously appear tonight, and many will project that tenuous condition into the long-term. Don’t fall for it.
Absent significant exogenous events, American presidents’ job approval ratings do not fare well in their second terms. Only Reagan and Clinton saw sustained improvement in their job approval polling in the final months of their second terms, and those were driven by economic growth precipitated by significant economic, tax code, and/or entitlement reforms of a kind that seem unlikely in the Obama presidency.
If those reforms do materialize, Hillary Clinton – or whoever the Democratic standard-bearer might be – will be in a good position to succeed the president in the Oval Office. But it is far too early to tell if this present bounce will hold. Moreover, Obama’s previous job approval bounces have been ephemeral and fleeting.
As it stands, Obama is getting this bounce at the least politically beneficial time: January of his penultimate year in office. Obama’s party cannot capitalize on this in the near-term with the closest national election 18 months away. In fact, the only effect Obama’s job approval rating increase will have is to force those Democrats who hope to succeed him to tie their fortunes closer to those of the president. It is much harder for Democratic presidential aspirants, who will eventually need to distance themselves from Obama, to justify that approach today while the president is enjoying increased popularity among liberals and independents alike.
So, Republicans should not fear Obama’s bump. It is unclear that it will last and its effects, if they manifest at all, will only be to force Democratic candidates into a less advantageous rhetorical position ahead of the 2016 election. So while Obama enjoys his progressive rebirth tonight, remember that the last laugh is likely to be enjoyed by Republicans.