Obama Approval and the Battle of Interpretations

03/13/2009 06:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama approval is at 59.7 based on my trend estimator, the blue line above. A lot or a little? High or low for other presidents? According to a Wall Street Journal Online article today by Douglas Schoen and Scott Rasmussen, "Obama's Poll Numbers are Falling to Earth".  But Nate Silver at counters "Yes, Obama's Approval Ratings are Declining. What did you Expect?"  The Schoen and Rasmussen piece notes a number of polling results that point to potential trouble for the new administration. Silver argues that the pace of the first 50 days is more like a full year for most presidents, so we should not think the current decline is that much and should compare other presidents at 365 days to this one at 50.  Ahhhhh... the power of predispositions.

Schoen and Rasmussen point to a number of results that should concern Democrats, were they in a mood to care about public reaction to the new president and congress and the implications those have for the next three years and 315 days. But their piece is entirely about driving a negative thesis, and picking evidence to suit. The Journal editors help that cause along with this graphic, presumably what we are supposed to think of when we read a headline like "Obama's Poll Numbers are Falling to Earth":


But that red line is just a tad off. If the scale were close to the relative change we see in approval in the chart of the actual data above (remember that blue line?) it would look more like this:

Just about as distorted as the one-sided interpretations of the data we see.

Democrats are just as inclined to find ways to deny the decline matters. One approach is to ignore results they don't like, such as Rasmussen's low daily tracker compared to Gallup' daily or other conventional polls. Silver takes that tack, but good for him for at least showing the Rasmussen data in the charts.  The problem from my point of view is that if Obama is "about average" for 50 days, then why are Dems so anxious to come up with reasons why that should not worry them? Silver is right that we should expect some decline as partisan lines become more well defined. But we should really be expecting significant decline as the economy fails to turn on a dime in the next few months. Any responsible economic analysis expects a significant lag before the stimulus has an effect, and assumes business conditions will improve after that for fundamental reasons as well. But not before the last quarter of 2009, at best. Ask Ronald Reagan how that worked out for him, as his approval sunk to 43% around midterm election day 1982.  Dems need to plan for the long term, which is likely to be pretty disappointing over the next 24 months. They have to hope for a late rebound like the one that powered Reagan to his "morning in America" landslide, just 2 years after the economic and approval bottom. 

Finally, is Obama now at or below President George W. Bush numbers at day 50? Depends on how much you want to cherry pick the polls. Here is what the real evidence is, with Clinton for good measure:

Yep. There are five polls at about this time where Bush was equal to or ahead of Obama, and the one closest to today is just about dead equal.  Problem is there are a bunch more polls lower, so that the trend estimate for Bush is 56.5 on day 50, versus Obama's 59.7 on that day.  President Clinton was at 56.

Bush and Clinton ran parallel through about day 60, then Clinton went into a true tailspin, bottoming below 40 by day 130. Bush held steady at the mid-50s through August 31. 

These are modest poll differences that mean very little for the long run success or failure of an administration. The Obama folks would do well to keep their eye on the policy ball, and work hard to survive losses in 2010 and adopt policies with long term payoffs in 2011 and 2012.  Republicans should take their shots when they can, but not count on a small decline in approval now, and cherry picked results, to make Obama seem in much worse shape than he is. The GOP needs more thoughtful analysis than that to Rebuild the Party. Both should look to their supporting coalitions for clues as to what they can do now to garner support when the next round of elections come.