About the key facts, there is little dispute. Over the last three months, President Obama’s approval rating has slowly crept upward, notwithstanding a continuing stream of press coverage about the President as weak, detached and increasingly marginalized. The averaged change is still relatively small – a move from the very low 40s to the mid-forties. But the last couple weeks have shown the first examples of net positive popularity in something like a year. And the latest ABC/WaPo poll shows the President at 50% approval.
So what is going on? And just as importantly, how will the change be understood?
The most concrete answer is the economy. Gas prices are at lows not seen in this century. And it’s unlikely to be just a flash in pan as it’s rooted in shifts in the global petroleum market – a topic discussed Gregor McDonald in our latest Prime Longform (sub req) on how the US energy boom is transforming geopolitics. There’s also the quickening pace of the employment market. But both of put into high relief in this data point released on Friday. The University of Michigan consumer sentiment index (the gold standard on this question) hit an 11 year hear of 98.2 in January, exceeding the consensus forecast of economists. Eleven year high. That’s a pretty big deal.
President Obama has taken a much more muscular approach to issues on the domestic front in recent months – a topic we’ll get to shortly. But those numbers alone should be seen as the primary and most convincing explanation of Obama’s modest but sustained popularity gains.
There are Obama’s various executive orders, veto threats and the new ability to pivot off a not-terribly-popular GOP majority on Capitol Hill. In the last few weeks he’s also issued a series of new proposals aimed at middle income families. The immigration order is probably sui generis. As Nate Cohn notes, the President’s popularity spiked by as much as 15% among Hispanic voters after he announced his immigration executive order.
But it all comes down to this. Just as we should probably all resist the urge to write doomsaying chin-scratchers on the end of the Obama dream when the President’s numbers are soft, we should probably equally resist the urge when they’re more robust. The economy is by no means everything. The President won reelection solidly with a still anemic economy. But it’s always the place to start when the numbers move.