THE BLOG
03/02/2009 05:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hitting the Stratosphere?

The online version of Frank Rich's column in Sunday's New York Times includes a link to our chart of President Obama's job approval rating in its third sentence. Thank you, Mr. Rich. That said, we hope you will forgive if we pick a nit with the conclusion that follows:

BARACK OBAMA must savor the moment while he can. It may never get better than this.

As he stood before Congress on Tuesday night, the new president was armed with new job approval percentages in the 60s. After his speech, the numbers hit the stratosphere: CBS News found that support for his economic plans spiked from 63 percent to 80.

Rich makes a fair point when he warns Obama that his job approval numbers may be peaking. We wince a little, however, when he compares the results from the CBS survey of speech watchers to the overall job approval ratings that appear on our chart.

Did Obama's speech blast his job approval numbers into outer space? Not if you look at our chart or, more specifically, at the two organizations -- Gallup and Rasmussen -- that fielded national surveys last week in the days after Obama's speech. Gallup, which reported Obama's approval rating at 63% a few days before the speech, showed it increasing slightly to 67% on interviews conducted Feb. 25-27 (after the speech), with a subsequent decline back to 63% over the weekend. Your call as to whether that variation is real or random (given the +/- 3% margin of sampling error associated with each report). Over the same period, Obama's approval percentage on the Rasmussen Reports daily tracking has varied between 58% and 60%.

Bottom line: Neither survey showed Obama's ratings zooming to the "stratosphere" in the immediate aftermath of the speech.

Why did the CBS survey of speech watchers yield a much bigger reaction? Well, for one, it sampled those who said they had watched the speech rather than the nation as a whole, an audience that usually skews in the President's favor.** Quoting from the CBS analysis [pdf] of their Tuesday night survey:

As is often the case in Presidential addresses, Americans who watched the speech tonight were more likely to be from the President’s political party – 38% were Democrats, 26% were Republicans and 36% were independents.

Second, the statistic Rich took from the post-speech survey was not on overall job approval rating but rather the percentage approving Obama's "plans for dealing with the economic crisis." The questionnaire did not include an overall job performance rating, perhaps to make before-and-after speech comparisons less tempting.

Third, for whatever reason, quick reaction polls typically yield exuberant responses to presidential addresses. In 2007, CBS found that the percentage of State of the Union watchers who said that George W. Bush "shares your priorities" rose from 38% to 53% during the speech. Moreover, CBS consistently found overwhelming approval for the proposals that Bush "made in his speech:" 80% in 2005, and 77% in 2006, 82% in 2007 (see my post from 2007 for similar data from Gallup), a period during which Bush's overall approval ratings showed a slow and very steady decline.

Even though these quick reaction surveys almost always show a strong positive response, presidents rarely experience lasting or even temporary bumps in their approval ratings following a State of the Union address. So far, it appears that Obama's address last week was no exception.

Obama's ratings may never get better, but they did not hit quite the high last week that Frank Rich implies.

**CBS News samples speech watchers using the nationally representative Knowledge Networks internet panel. In linking to the their results Tuesday night I put quotation marks around the words nationally representative (a phrase they used to describe the sample) which struck some readers as an expression of editorial skepticism about their methodology. Apologies for that, as I intended no such meaning. That said, as I explained back in August, there are reasons to be a bit more cautious about interpreting results from a panel survey.