Obama’s Poll Rebound: Almost As Many Approve as Disapprove!

By popular demand: An assessment of the latest polling numbers.

A couple of commenters are excited about new poll numbers showing a slight uptick in President Obama’s poll numbers. I tend not to pay much attention to small fluctuations in these things, given that they have no real impact right now (the next poll that matters is a year from now and Obama gets to keep his job until noon on January 20, 2013 no matter what his approval numbers are), unless the overall narrative is somehow changed.

Has that happened? Not so far as I can tell.

The RealClearPolitics poll of polls looks remarkably steady of late:

His approval numbers tanked and his disapproval numbers skyrocketed his first nine months in office. That was interesting–Look! Movement!–but unsurprising. The economy was in the tank, he made some really hard calls in order to deal with that fact, and the absurd euphoria over his ability to instantly solve intractable problems dissipated.

Since December of 2009, though, the story has been unchanged: Roughly half the country approves of his job performance and roughly half disapproves.

There were some minor milestones along the way, with his disapproval numbers setting several statistically insignificant but journalistically interesting “records.” Then there was a nice spike at in May with the killing of Osama bin Laden. But, basically, meh.

There have been three new polls released: Gallup, Rasmussen, and Quinnipiac. They’re all safely within the “meh” range, showing approval ratings of 45, 44, and 47 and disapproval numbers of 48, 55, and 49, respectively. The “meh” factor goes up considerably when we add a pinch of salt to the Rasmussen numbers which, for a variety of reasons, tend to show weaker numbers for Obama.

Here’s the Gallup trend over the same period:

It’s hard to see much good news for the president here. His disapproval remains ever-so-slightly higher than his approval. You really have to zero in on the individual data points to see that his approval is up 5 points from where it was in early August; to the naked eye it looks like a flat line with expected daily variations.

There’s no meaningful variation at all in the Rasmussen numbers but, again, let’s dismiss them given the not entirely unfounded controversy surrounding them.

Then there’s Quinnipiac:

President Barack Obama’s job approval rating is up, from a negative 41 – 55 percent October 6, to a split today with 47 percent approving and 49 percent disapproving in a Quinnipiac University poll released today. The president has leads of 5 to 16 percentage points over likely Republican challengers.

Voters also are divided 47 – 49 percent on whether Obama deserves reelection, compared to last month, when voters said 54 – 42 percent he did not deserve reelection.


“President Barack Obama seems to be improving in voters’ eyes almost across-the-board,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “He scores big gains among the groups with whom he has had the most problems – whites and men. Women also shift from a five-point negative to a four-point positive.

“Whether this is a blip, perhaps because of the death of Moammar Gadhafi and the slight improvement in some of the economic numbers, or the beginning of a sustained upward move in his popularity isn’t clear and won’t be for some time. Nevertheless, the movement allows the White House a sigh of relief, for the president’s approval had been stuck in the low 40s for some time and even a temporary upward move is good news for the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”

That’s actually quite a bit of variation in one respectable poll. But, again, all within the 50-50 “meh” range of the last two years.

Here’s Michael Memoli of the LAT offers a balanced assessment (“Obama’s approval rating on the rebound?”):

Don’t call it a comeback; he’s still in perilous terrain for an incumbent. But President Obama’s job approval rating is showing remarkable consistency of late after reaching an all time low.

According to the Gallup daily tracking poll, Obama’s rating now stands at 43%, where it’s rested seven of the last nine days.

His approval rating has been at or above 40% for 13 straight days now, equaling the longest such stretch since he first slipped below 40% in mid-August.

Any incumbent president who is polling below 50% is thought to be vulnerable in a reelection year, and the White House would certainly like to see his numbers higher. But the relative stability of late represents progress, and perhaps the success of the new approach of keeping the president out on the road, and avoiding a deadlocked Congress by making incremental policy moves through executive orders.

My assessment of all this remains pretty much what it has been for quite some time:

1. Obama’s approval numbers are remarkably good considering the horrendous state of the economy. This reflects an enormous amount of good will he enjoys personally.

2. Obama is the favorite to win the next presidential election. That’s true of any incumbent not embroiled in a horrendous scandal and he has the added advantages of being likable, a good campaigner, and able to raise a boatload of money.

3. A plausible Republican such as Mitt Romney–and, frankly, there’s no longer a “such as” –nonetheless has a decent chance of knocking him off given the aforementioned horrendous state of the economy.


FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    I think there’s a ‘compared to. . .’ thing happening as we get closer to determining his opponent. I disapprove of Obama. But compared to Cain or Romney? That’s a different question.

  2. ponce says:

    But flatlining at 25% of Republican voters is great news for Romney.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    The really good news for Obama is the Republicans and the tea party. They are trying their damnedest to not nominate the only candidate that has a chance and the Republican dominated House as an approval rating in single digits.

  4. Dan says:

    I fall squarely within the disapprove camp and I can’t imagine anything that could change that before election day, but if Romney keeps running away from his only real achievements (governing effectively as a centrist in a left leaning state), disgust may trump disapproval.

  5. Liberty60 says:

    I agree with the overall assessment that “meh” sums up how the country feels about Obama right now.

    However, what is worth discussing is the direction of the criticism;how many feel he is too conservative,versus how many feel he is too liberal.

    I think his leftward critics will at the end of the day vote for him, just as, at the end of the day, Romney’s Tea Party critics will vote for him.

  6. Hey Norm says:

    Actually my comment on the other thread was not about excitement over mediocre numbers…but about balance in their portrayal.
    Small flucuations down…no one is impressed with this guy. Small fluctuations up…meh.
    OTB today:

    “…I tend not to pay much attention to small fluctuations in these things…”

    OTB just over a month ago:

    “…the poll average — which, it’s worth noting, includes polls that measure different types of samples — shows Obama with a 41% approval rating…The significant thing to note here is that we’re starting to see poling come in that was done after the President’s jobs speech, and after he introduced his jobs plan and his deficit reduction plan, and the public doesn’t seem to be all that impressed with him, even if they do nominally support some of the details of the plans that he’s proposed…”

  7. PJ says:

    Romney will have to, just as McCain had to, move to the right to appease the base. And then he’ll lose, just as McCain did.

    I wonder if it will be Romney-Bachmann or Romney-Cain?

    Maybe if he picks Santorum he can carry Pennsylvania?

  8. Hey Norm says:

    Liberty 60…
    You make a good point that I had not thought about before.
    The ACA was similar…the majority of the country was against it…but that was only because a huge portion of the country correctly thought that it didn’t go far enough.
    As for Romney’s critics…I wonder if Evangelicals will come out for him…even if they do think Obama is the anti-christ.

  9. Hey Norm says:

    @ PJ…
    Romney and Santorum would make for a frothy mix!!!

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Hey Norm: You realize OTB isn’t a person, right, but a website with multiple authors?

    But, actually, Doug’s assessment there strikes me as perfectly legitimate. His closing paragraph, which he partly cite, says:

    The significant thing to note here is that we’re starting to see poling come in that was done after the President’s jobs speech, and after he introduced his jobs plan and his deficit reduction plan, and the public doesn’t seem to be all that impressed with him, even if they do nominally support some of the details of the plans that he’s proposed. This could mean that people have given up hope that Washington can do anything to the economy, or that they’re starting to tune the President out. If it’s the latter, then the President could have a problem.

    He’s using steady poll numbers to show that even attempts to change to narrative–like the big jobs bill–aren’t having much impact. That’s actually a perfectly interesting point.

    His extrapolation that, if the country is tuning out the president or has lost confidence that he can fix the problem then he’s in trouble is almost certainly right, too.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    In order for Romney to move left or right he has to first be located at some point in space and time. He’s a quantum creature, simultaneously here and there, and the act of observing him can alter his position.

  12. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Schrodinger’s Gnat?

  13. michael reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    We won’t know until we open the box.

  14. Hey Norm says:

    @ James:
    But clearly the message has been working…just not in the time-frame you were looking forButEo now it’s…meh. Where’s the headline that maybe so-and-so’s conclusion was lacking? Maybe his conclusion was full of shit? Clearly people weren’t so into Obama ’cause of a small fluctuation downward…but a small fluctuation upward means nothing.
    I personally think neither fluctuation means bubkis…but if you’re going to assign meaning to any small fluctuation then any small fluctuation has meaning.
    I agree in general that Obama is in for a struggle…and I understand that there are individual writers here…but I would expect some consistency from each writer.

  15. ponce says:

    He’s using steady poll numbers to show that even attempts to change to narrative–like the big jobs bill–aren’t having much impact.

    It’s naive to expect large swings in Obama’s polling numbers based on single speeches or the introduction of a single bill.

  16. MarkedMan says:

    For those, like me, who support Obama and think that Republicans have descended into a fevered fantasy land where facts simply don’t matter, I wouldn’t take too much heart from the idea that Romney will be hurt by his crazy primary challengers. Over the past ten years the Republicans have shown that they will do as they are told by the Limbaugh/Norquist leaders of the party. They unanimously vote to filibuster every single consequential bill they are likely to lose, they to a man vote against any gun reform even when they have shown previous support and know it will hurt them with their home state voters, they unanimously vote against any tax increase whatsoever, even the closing of completely egregious loopholes. It defies belief that every Republican is a Stepford automaton with exactly the same beliefs, so the takeaway is that, in the end, they do as told. And when Romney is nominated, the party backers will force compliance among the elite. Rush, Norquist and all the other lunatics will send out their marching orders and the Republicans will march. Anyone who doesn’t fit that mold has already been primaried out of office or drummed out of leadership.

  17. RW Rogers says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Michael, I doubt we’ll know any more even if we do open the box.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @Hey Norm: We just don’t know. Maybe it’s the Gaddafi “get” that’s created the bump. Maybe it’s the relative lack of fighting back and forth with Congress. It’s small but it’s sustained enough to be something.

    I think Doug’s just seeing two years of mostly sub-50 approval as a bad sign and seeing lack of a gain after major domestic initiatives as confirmation. I’m seeing no real news as . . . no real news.

    Part of it’s just a function of Doug’s having more time of late to post. Back in the day when I was putting up 10-13 posts a day, I paid a lot more attention to individual blips. Now, I’m mostly doing trend analysis.

  19. A voice from another precinct says:

    @James Joyner: So what you’re saying is that OTB suffers from the same “have to post something” phenomenon that “all news all the time” broadcast media suffer from? Interesting…

  20. anjin-san says:

    Part of it’s just a function of Doug’s having more time of late to post

    Regrettably, he is not using it wisely…

  21. Scott F. says:

    James –

    Your numbers 1 and 2 trump number 3.

    That Obama has never dipped below 40 percent approval even after 3 years of 9% unemployment is very telling. And as Liberty60 states, a significant part of the disapproval comes from Obama’s left.

  22. Kylopod says:

    >Obama is the favorite to win the next presidential election.

    While I’ve thought Obama was the favorite for a long time, I’ve recently begun to change my mind. There seems to be somewhat of a ceiling on Obama’s regular approval ratings–as you pointed out, they’ve stayed in the 40s pretty consistently since 2009, apart from the spike they got after the OBL killing. Any incumbent whose approval rating is below 50% probably has the odds against him. Bush was in the high 40s on the day he was reelected, and it was not an easy win. Most incumbents who have won a new term have had much higher approval ratings. As Nate Silver pointed out, there is limited data on this question, though there does appear to be a correlation. If Obama wins reelection with only 45% approval rating, it’ll set the modern record.

    I think most Obama supporters are too complacent about the possibility that the voters will prefer Obama to any of the alternatives. Research suggests that most people don’t vote that way; if the public is dissatisfied with the incumbent, then the incumbent is probably in trouble. Of course a really bad challenger can change those odds, as we saw from the Senate race between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle, and I could see that happening at the presidential level if the GOP is stupid enough to nominate someone like Cain or Bachmann, but I doubt that’s going to happen. Romney is still the favorite to win the nomination, and he simply doesn’t suffer from the taint of extremism that dogs the others, including Perry. It’s true that he has had to move to the right to be a viable candidate in the GOP primaries, and some of this has the potential to hurt him in the general election (as in his attempt to run to Perry’s right on immigration). But I think he’s a lot more disciplined than John McCain, who faced a similar problem in 2008. In fact, on that one trait–discipline–Romney reminds me of Obama. The fact that he isn’t a very exciting or charismatic candidate doesn’t, I believe, matter anywhere near as much as some people think.

    I don’t see how Obama can easily overcome the apparent ceiling on his approval ratings, unless the economy shows some sharp signs of improvement by next summer. I do, however, still have a sneaking suspicion that he’s a brilliant enough politician to pull off a win even in these dire circumstances.

  23. ponce says:

    And as Liberty60 states, a significant part of the disapproval comes from Obama’s left.

    Gallup has Obama’s approval among Democrats at 80%, 3 points higher than Bill Clinton at the same point in his presidency.

  24. anjin-san says:

    And in off-topic news, huge OWS protests in Oakland today. Police were non-confrontational, and, wonder of wonders, there was no violence. There was some vandalism, but in many cases protesters physically restrained vandals.

    A cause for concern is a long column of police cruisers from nearby Contra Costa is heading for Oakland as I type.

    Lots of chatter in the bay area today about pulling accounts from major banks and moving them to credit unions – voting with our wallets. That is something I am going to look at tomorrow.

  25. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @anjin-san: If it helps you any, I’ve always been happy with my credit union accounts. The use the deposits to loan money to actual people, the CEO and other officers don’t divvy up billions of borrowed dollars for their bonuses, and I don’t need to worry about the officers investing in credit default swaps. All in all, the fact that the government chokes the life out of them with burdensome regulations seems to work ok for everyone.

  26. sam says:

    I know this’ll be covered, but I thought I’d get the jump:

    Gallup: Three in Four Americans Back Obama on Iraq Withdrawal

    What do we think Mittens will say?

  27. Hey Norm says:

    @ Sam…
    As always…it depends on who he is talking to.
    The WaPo has an interesting article up about the Mittster selling himself to Democrats in MA as a one man sleeper cell in the Republican Party…who, once he rose to national prominence, would push their issues and transform the GOP from the inside.