WASHINGTON -- On Thursday, the Gallup Daily tracking poll marked a symbolic milestone. For the first time in more than a month and only the third time since last July, Gallup reported an approval rating for President Barack Obama (49 percent) that was slightly higher than his disapproval rating (46 percent).
On Friday, the Rasmussen Reports automated tracking survey marked a similar landmark. It showed Obama's approval rating at 50 percent or greater nationwide for the fifth consecutive day, a popularity not matched on the Rasmussen poll since January 2011.
The two daily tracking surveys are not alone. National telephone polls released in the past week by Fox News, ABC News and the Washington Post, Ipsos/Reuters, and the Democratic Party-affiliated Public Policy Polling (also sponsored by the website DailyKos and the Service Employees International Union) have all found increases in Obama's approval rating since October. Most of the increases range between 4 and 6 percentage points; the Ipsos/Reuters survey found a smaller rise.
Given the recent upward blip in the two national daily-tracking polls, some have looked for explanations in the events of the past week, particularly last Friday's Labor Department report of a rising employment rate. While positive economic news is the most likely reason for Obama's improving job rating, the upward trend in his ratings did not begin in February. In fact, most of the surveys have tracked a gradual increase in Obama's ratings that began in late October.
The HuffPost Pollster chart, based on all available public polls, shows a slow, steady rise of roughly five percentage points in the president's job approval rating since it hit its all-time low in early October.
The longer-term increase in Obama's approval rating parallels five months of increases in several survey-based indexes of consumer confidence. Specifically:
- Gallup reported that its index of consumer confidence has risen for five consecutive months to its highest point since May 2011. The pollster also reports that 22 percent of Americans now say they are satisfied with the way things are going, "higher than at any point since last spring."
- The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index rose to its highest level in a year this week.
- The Thompson Reuters University of Michigan Index of Consumer Sentiment was up in December for the fifth straight month. A preliminary estimate for January, based on a smaller sample, is slightly down, but confidence remained higher than in previous months.
- The Rasmussen Consumer Index stands at its highest level in over a year, although it's down slightly from a peak earlier in the week.
- The Consumer Confidence Index of the Conference Board showed a slight decline in January, but its December and January measurements were still significantly higher than those of the three previous months.
Of course, the overall economic mood remains gloomy. On the Gallup surveys, for example, far more Americans still say that economic conditions nationwide are getting worse (58 percent) than say they're getting better (36 percent) -- though the positive number has more than doubled, from 18 percent, since the fall.
And despite big increases since October, the president continues to receive net negative ratings on "the economy" (44 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove) and "creating jobs" (44 percent approve, 51 percent disapprove) in the most recent ABC News/Washington Post survey.
The main point, however, is that the rising tide of consumer optimism directly parallels the upward trend in Obama's overall job approval rating. That result underscores the promise and the peril for the Obama administration in 2012. Continuing economic recovery will likely further boost his approval ratings and his chances in the November election. Yet we have seen temporary increases in consumer confidence before -- most memorably in January 2010 -- that quickly ebbed in the face of later negative economic news.
Either way, the economic trends of the next six to eight months are likely the most important factor in determining whether Barack Obama wins a second term in November.