02/09/2009 03:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lessons in Declining Approval?

From the left side of the commentariat, we have a new conventional wisdom: Bipartisanship is a bust. As Andrew Sullivan summarizes this morning:

Paul Krugman, who wants a partisan war on the GOP, and Matt Yglesias, who thinks that bipartisanship's impossible in the modern era, and Tina Brown, who thinks there's no longterm downside to Democratic ownership of hefty social spending, have now come out swinging.

Nate Silver brings job approval data to bear on the issue. Observing a 6-point drop in Obama's "approval rating" as measured by three pollsters, he concludes:

The benefits of "bipartisanship" are dubious. The public says they want bipartisanship, and a large majority of the public believes that Obama acted in a bipartisan fashion during the stimulus debate. And yet, his approval ratings fell significantly during this period.

Really? Let's take a closer look. Silver produced the following table to compare the Obama's "approval ratings" between "the immediate aftermath of his inauguration" and late last week:

First, let's be clear about the timing. The "before" snapshot covers both the "immediate aftermath" and several days during the inaugural festivities. Only Gallup's numbers come from interviews conducted entirely after the swearing-in (1/21-23). The Rasmussen result above derives from interviews conducted for two days prior and the night of the inauguration (1/18-20). The DailyKos/Research 2000 rating (which measures favorability, not job approval) comes from interviews conducted over the course of the week, Monday through Thursday (1/19-22).

But whether just before or immediately after the inauguration, the key point is the same: The period is one in which news coverage is as positive as a president gets -- ever.   Virtually all news sources, from network anchors to conservative talking heads, reported on the inauguration in glowing terms. The focus was on the history, the massive crowds, the celebration, not the usual back-and-forth on policy.

The drop that followed is what we should expect as the bon mots of the inauguration give way to the normal back-and-forth of governing. Republican and conservative leaders begin to criticize Obama. Their followers -- Republicans, Republican-leaning independents and even some conservative Democrats -- start to feel less positive about Obama. That's politics 101. LIterally.

Look at the these results by party and you see exactly that pattern. Obama's ratings dropped by an average 3.3 percentage points among Democrats, by 5.7 points among independents and by 10.0 points among Republicans. As Scott Rasmussen put it, this change amounts to "a natural reaction as the unifying nature of the inauguration gives way to the challenging realities of governing in times of a challenging economy."

But evidence of the limits of bipartisanship? Let's remember that Obama holds an overall approval rating that most polls now peg in the mid-sixty percent range, after winning with roughly 52.9% of the votes cast. Doesn't the aggregate approval rating, including approval from roughly a third of Republicans, say something about the benefits of the "bipartisan" messaging? And how will those Republican and Republican leaning independents respond to harsher partisan rhetoric from the President?

Moreover, to the extent that Obama's ratings declined, both Gallup and Rasmussen -- the only two measuring his job approval on a daily basis -- show that decline occurring by the end of inauguration week, well before Republicans ramped up their criticism of the stimulus bill. So as evidence of a reaction to the stimulus debate, these data fall short.

If there is a lesson in this particular decline in approval ratings, it has little to do with the stimulus plan. I'm not sure I see a lesson here, unless Obama can find a way to hold an inauguration every week.

As for the strategy of how to turn Obama's apparent "upper hand" on the stimulus debate into the 60 Senate votes necessary to get the package passed in the Senate, we need to remember two important but conflicting strains of public opinion: On the one hand, most Americans want the government to do something to stimulate the economy. As today's new numbers from Gallup show, more than half (51%) say the think passing "an economic stimulus plan" is "critically important," another 29% rate it "important but not critical." They tend to respond well to any proposal that promises to create new jobs.

On the other, a majority of Americans are wary new of government spending. As last week's CBS News poll showed, the number that think "reducing taxes" will "do more to get the U.S. out of the current recession" (62%) is nearly four times the number who prefer "increasing government spending" (22%). And the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found twice as many Americans worried that the government would "spend too much money" (60%) rather than "too little" (33%) in an effort to boost the economy.

Any strategy to get a stimulus package passed has to consider both strains. Like it or not, you can be sure that "moderate" Senators in competitive states looking ahead to their next reelection campaign are doing just that.

PS: Thanks to Scott Rasmussen and Gallup's Jeff Jones for the cross-tab data cited above. DailyKos posts cross-tabs for their surveys here.

Update (2/10): Nate Silver responds here. I am traveling today to a lecture that I am giving tonight. I'm hoping to add a few thoughts when time allows.