Obama’s Job Approval: Who Knows?

The president's job approval is down. And it's also up!

Yesterday’s post “Obama Approval at Record Low” expressed bemusement that the president’s job approval had plummeted in two major polls, ostensibly because of higher gas prices. A flurry of other surveys, however, fail to show that drop and one, the Reuters/Ipsos poll, shows a slight rise.

For the first time since early July, more Americans approve of the job President Barack Obama is doing than disapprove, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll that shows his approval rating now at 50 percent.

The poll, taken March 8-11 on the heels of reports that 227,000 jobs were added to the U.S. economy in February, indicates that Obama’s rating has risen by 2 percentage points during the past month. The percentage of Americans who disapprove of the Democratic president was 48 percent, down from 49 percent in February.

Some other polls have shown a recent dip in Obama’s approval rating, and linked that to rising gasoline prices.

But for most Americans, other economic trends during the past month have been relatively positive. Obama appears to be benefiting from that, and perhaps from a bitter Republican presidential campaign that at times has focused on divisive social issues such as abortion.

Pollster.com’s Emily Swanson (“President Barack Obama Approval Rating Drops In Two Polls, Remains Steady On Others“) attributes much of this variation to “statistical noise.” Ultimately, she sees a modest but perhaps statistically irrelevant dip taking place: “By customizing the Huffpost Pollster chart to be more sensitive to the most recent polls, the trend shows signs of a slight downturn in Obama’s approval since February, when most pollsters showed his approval ratings at a particularly high point.”

Nate Silver initially sides with the “statistical noise” analysis as well but amends it in light of his own paper’s poll “which had President Obama’s approval ratings dropping all the way down to 41 percent. That certainly weighs the evidence more in the direction of Mr. Obama’s numbers having declined from their February peaks — and makes November’s election look more like a toss-up than one that leans toward Mr. Obama.”

The RealClearPolitics poll of polls shows a distinct but small dip in popularity and rise in disapproval–but within a range where Obama has been mired since August 2010.

The individual polls show substantial variation, ranging from a spread of +5 to -6, but the approval and disapproval numbers are both within spitting distance of 50 in all of the polls.

Silver also notes that “Timing can also be a factor: the Monday Gallup poll, for instance, was conducted entirely over the weekend, after the relatively good February jobs report had been published. It’s possible that made some difference, but who knows. In the long-run, a poll published 238 days before an election is not going to be much more accurate than one conducted 236 days before the election — unless there has been some fundamental shift in the political environment.”

“Who knows” may indeed be the best takeaway here.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    I’ve read (but I can’t find it now so take it with a grain of salt – sorry) that the NYT/CBS poll and the ABC/Post poll changed the profile %s in their last polls. They gave an increase to the % of GOP voters and decreased the % of Dems. I’m not sure why they did this but that would account for the approval rating changes.

  2. J-Dub says:

    What methodology to pollsters use these days? Are they all phone polls? So they only people they reach are those with land-lines, people who aren’t on the do-not-call list, people who would agree to sit through a poll, etc. In other words, old people.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not sure why they did this but that would account for the approval rating changes.

    They may have found they were over-sampling Democrats, something that’s been claimed from time to time. In other words, it may be less that the president’s approval rating has changed than that it had previously been reported as higher than it actually was.

  4. Jib says:

    Meanwhile, PEW has Obama comfortably ahead in the election.

    Job approval is used as proxy for head to head polls in the years between elections. However, in an election year, the questions stops being ‘Is Obama doing a good job’ and starts being ‘Who do you want to be president of the US, Obama or Romney (Santorum). That shift, from job approval to head to head is going on now and will culminate in the ultimate head to head poll, the election in Nov.

    Relax people, we have a long ways to go.

  5. Franklin says:

    I think humans tend to extrapolate apparent trends way, WAY more than is statistically valid. Even when a good statistician like Nate Silver carefully weighs everything out, a recent poll that will eventually be found to be an outlier can throw the whole thing off for several days or weeks.

    You’ll also find this tendency when people argue about whether global warming has slowed down or stopped. Anybody who is sure of themselves on this answer is simply ignorant of how statistics work.

  6. KariQ says:

    As always, the best thing to do is to look at the aggregate of all polls, even if you suspect they are wrong. that would give an approval of right around 48%.

    Whether and how to weight a poll for party affiliation is a much debated question in political polling. I don’t know if the weighting is new for CBS/NYT or not, but my impression of them has always been that theirs is the most volatile and least reliable of major media polls. NBC/WSJ is typically the best.

  7. Racehorse says:

    “No one will lose their current health plan”
    Office of Budget and Management: 4 million Americans will lose their current health coverage.
    The cost of Obama health care: 7 trillion dollars: more than twice the projections
    “No one will lose their current health plan”

    Obama care: “The worst financial disaster since the Civil War” (Heritage group)
    “No one will lose their current health care plan”

  8. Tano says:


    “No one will lose their current health care plan”

    That is true, actually. Anyone who does lose their current plan will not do so because Obamacare forced the issue. If some employers cancel the plans they offer (something they can do just as well, actually easier today) then how is Obamacare responsible for that?

  9. Eric Florack says:

    That is true, actually. Anyone who does lose their current plan will not do so because Obamacare forced the issue. If some employers cancel the plans they offer (something they can do just as well, actually easier today) then how is Obamacare responsible for that?

    By creating a situation in which such plans cannot survive. That seems rather obvious.