In less than a week, President Obama will give his State Of The Union speech to Congress and the nation. Sitting presidents usually get a bump in the polls immediately afterwards, since it is always the most-watched political speech of the entire year. But what's interesting to note, one week out, is that Obama is already enjoying somewhat of a bounce in his job approval polling. What's more, Obama seems poised to rise even higher in public approval, since the next issue teed up for a major political battle is one where Obama's stance is a lot more popular than the Republican position: immigration reform. All in all, ever since his forceful response to the midterm elections, Obama seems to be getting more and more popular.
In absolute numbers, of course, Obama still has a long way to go. Today, Real Clear Politics charted Obama's daily averages at a better mark than he saw in all of 2014. If his numbers hold until the end of the month, January will show the biggest monthly improvement in Obama's job approval for his entire second term, in fact. That all sounds pretty impressive, but what isn't so impressive was the hole he had to climb out of. Obama is close to a milestone in his polling numbers because his job approval is approaching 45 percent and his job disapproval is just above 50 percent. That's still "underwater" -- more people disapprove of the job he's doing than approve. But in relative terms, Obama is indeed improving his standing. He spent all of 2014 below 45 percent approval, by comparison, and his numbers even flirted with a drop below 40 percent at times. But -- again, by way of comparison -- George W. Bush's numbers at this point in his second term were below 35 percent approval and above 60 percent disapproval. So things could always have been worse.
There are likely many factors influencing Obama's recent bump in the polls. The biggest one may be a background issue that causes Americans to either feel better or worse about the economy as a whole: gas prices. Gas prices are way down, which can easily translate into better job approval for any sitting president (it's a political fact of life, fair or not). But added to cheap gas is an overview of an economy finally getting better for millions. Unemployment is down to 5.6 percent. Some workers are feeling confident enough in the job market to quit in search of better wages -- a trend that could improve wages across the board. In general, public opinion about the economy lags behind how the economy is really doing, but that bodes well for the next few months for Obama, as more and more people start to see improvements in their own lives.
The spike upwards this particular month may have been influenced by Obama's newfound boldness in pursuing his own policies and introducing some new initiatives. "Free community college for all" is a pretty simple concept to get behind, for instance. We'll likely get a few more of these big ideas in next week's speech. Most will likely become nothing more than preparing the ground for Democrats in the next election (at least, those issues that have to go through Congress), and most will likely be easy for Democratic candidates to fully support. Most will likely also be wildly popular with the public at large, which again bodes pretty well for Obama's public approval.
Of course, there is one big voting bloc that has shifted dramatically over the past few months. Latinos overwhelmingly support Obama's recent moves on immigration and deportation reform, and the improvement among this demographic is likely the largest single identifiable influence on Obama's recent bounce in the polls. This, again, bodes pretty well for the immediate future, as Republicans are already trying to outdo each other over how many people they want to see deported.
The House Republicans just passed a bill which takes an extremely hard line on immigration and deportation. Not only does this bill defund Obama's recent announced deportation deferment program, it reaches back and wipes out the DREAM kids' status as well. If Harry Reid really wanted to help Obama (and the Democratic Party at large), he'd announce that Senate Democrats would not be filibustering the bill, and would instead let the Senate Republicans and the House Republicans fight it out over the issue. My guess is that even without Democratic interference, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell would have a tough time passing any bill through both their houses, due to their own internal battle over how hard a line to take. Added into this mix will be all the Republicans who have plans to run for president next year. They'll all be desperately trying to outflank each other on the right, which is almost guaranteed to produce some seriously offensive off-the-cuff language from at least one of them. This fight, it should be noted, is going to consume the next month, since Congress set a self-imposed deadline of February to deal with it.
President Obama has risen in the polls ever since the midterm elections, by taking bold stances on several issues simultaneously. In the next few months, he's going to be vetoing lots of bills and standing firm as Republicans try to force him to accept their agenda. This will be a new situation for Obama, since he's only used his veto pen twice in six years, but it's a fair guess that standing up for what he believes in will also help improve his job approval with the public.
Obama's resurgence is nothing short of astounding, given how badly Democrats were beaten in the midterms last year. It was a defeat of historic proportions, and yet nobody is now asking (as they did of Bill Clinton, at exactly the same point in his presidency) whether Obama is "still relevant or not." Not only is Obama still relevant, he is actually doing a much better job promoting his political agenda right now than the Republicans. Republicans are moving what they can through Congress, but by doing so they're staking out some very unpopular positions with the public.
Obama's job approval is still pretty low, by historic standards. But it is currently improving at a rapid pace. This could all be just a momentary spike, and his numbers may deflate after nothing more than one temporary bounce. Still, the indicators for the next few months look pretty good for Obama. If he gets a further bump upwards from next week's speech, he will enter February (and the big immigration fight) with the wind at his back. All in all, Obama's in a pretty good position, one week out from the biggest political stage of the year.
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