02/12/2009 03:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Re: Lessons

I'm a day late on this, but I want to post a few more thoughts following up on Nate Silver's response to my critique of his post from earlier this week.

First, Nate's probably right that we agree on more than we disagree here. My disagreement involves his argument that Obama's "bipartisan" outreach coupled with Republican attacks on the stimulus plan led to a "significant," 6-point decline in his job rating. What I tried to argue in my first post was that most of the apparent drop results from an apples-to-oranges comparison. Roughly half the interviews in the three surveys Nate included in his"post-inauguration day" average were conducted before or during the inauguration. I'll certainly cut him some slack on this issue, since our own job approval chart also connects pre-inauguration "transition" approval ratings with post inauguration "job as president" ratings. But if we cut out the pre or mid-inauguration results and we see very little decline.

The chart below, courtesy of Charles Franklin, includes only polls conducted from January 21 forward that ask about the job Obama is doing "as president" (the x-axis labels show the middle date of each survey's field period and, unlike our standard chart, includes all daily tracking releases, not just non-overlapping samples). Rasmussen shows little or no trend over the last 19 days. Gallup shows a small decline that occurs mostly in the three to four days immediately after the inauguration, well before Republicans ramped up their criticism of the stimulus plan. A linear (straight) regression line that excludes the two outlier results shows a very slight overall decline -- 1.3 percentage points (from 64.3% to 63.0%). Our standard loess regression "local trend" line based on all of the data shows a slightly bigger drop of 2.3 percentage points (from 64.2% to 61.9%).


Nate responds by arguing that "the inauguration bounce typically tends to be somewhat long-lasting," citing a recent Gallup report showing that "new presidents' approval ratings typically increase in the first few months of their presidencies." So maybe the stimulus debate made Obama's ratings fall faster than normal or kept them flat when they should have been rising.

The problem is, the historic Gallup data is not much help here, since it looks at polling snapshots taken during the first three weeks of the last eight presidencies and compares those to snapshots taken at about week fourteen. For five of eight presidents, Gallup fielded their first poll in February. They started interviewing on the other three at least three days after the inauguration. So we have no past data from Gallup to tell us whether to expect a brief a brief, 2-3 "bump" in approval ratings like what we typically see for political conventions.

The big challenge with much of the discussion of "bipartisanship" over the last few weeks is that everyone defines that term differently. To some, it means significant compromise on all sides, something akin to a parliamentary, coalition government (see Mark Halperin) To others, it means the bipartisan "brand," a promise of civility and cooperation but only as much compromise as necessary to get the votes needed to pass legislation (see Ben Smith). So your views on the virtues Obama's "bipartisanship" may depend on how you define it.

From the perspective of the polling data, the bottom line is that Obama is on the verge of winning approval for, as Joe Klein put it yesterday, "the most expensive bill in the history of anything" while maintaining a job rating greater than sixty percent. Moreover, Gallup found that as of a week ago, 67% approved of Obama's handling of "the government's efforts to pass an economic stimulus bill" compared to just 31% of the Republicans in Congress. It seems obvious to me that the legislative victory and Obama's "upper hand" in public approval owe to both his recent salesmanship of the stimulus bill and his pursuit of the "bipartisan brand."

Update: Noam Scheiber makes a similar point about Obama's bipartisan outreach (h/t: commenter Mark).