Should Democrats Worry About President Obama’s Declining Approval Ratings?

September 4, 2009

The following is a response to a Politico Arena question: Should Democrats be terrified by Obama’s slide in the polls?

My good friend and deservedly respected colleague Charlie Cook has gotten worked up in recent columns about developments in public opinion that suggest the makings of a “wave election” in 2010 that should “terrify Democrats.” I think Charlie is too caught up in the moment and unconsciously compensating for not pulling the trigger on the 2006 and 2008 wave elections until late in those campaigns.

To be sure, if the economy is a basket case a year from now and President Obama’s approval ratings have sunk well below 50 percent, Democrats are likely to lose 20 or more seats in the House and a few in the Senate, possibly though not likely enough to threaten their majority in the House. And yes, the swing voters will be concentrated among Independents, especially those with no clear partisan leaning. That is the historical pattern.

But there is nothing inexorable about the recent decline in Obama’s ratings or the larger swing against him among Independents. We have not yet emerged from a serious economic downturn, one that threatened to spiral into a global recession. Most leaders (presidents, prime ministers, governors) has seen their public support drop, especially among those segments of the electorate least attached to a political party. And most are likely to see their support stabilize and possibly rise with an economic recovery.

Obama’s support today, overall and among key political and demographic groups, almost perfectly mirrors that of November 2008, when he won a very comfortable victory. (Alan Abramowitz reports the correlation at .99.) Polls go down and up during the course of a congressional or presidential term. This week Obama seems to have benefited from a Ted Kennedy bounce: his job approval in the Gallup Tracking Poll increased from 50 to 55 percent. I suspect it will come down again and then go up again and that pattern will be repeated with cycles of good and bad economic and political news.

The biggest mistake would be for Obama and the Democrats to become terrified at these shifts in public sentiment and renounce or reverse steps they have taken in the last six months. Public unhappiness with the financial bailout and stimulus will diminish if and when, as seems likely, evidence mounts of their success in avoiding the abyss and moving the economy forward. A legislative victory on health reform, in spite of unified Republican opposition (not counting Olympia Snowe) and public unease, would buoy, not diminish, Democratic prospects in 2010. While some midterm loss of seats by the president’s party is to be expected, a reliance on today’s polls gives us little purchase on the magnitude of that loss.

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