09/16/2009 04:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Unusually Strong Disapproval?

Gary Langer has a blog post up today worth reading in full, but I'll block quote two paragraphs to get you to read the rest. First, his lead:

A debate's alight on why disapproval of Barack Obama has become so unusually strong. The answer: It hasn't. Three of the last four presidents have seen this level of strong unpopularity - one of them faster; another, far deeper.

Later he adds an important reality check that can get lost in our ongoing obsession with all things health care:

I continue to say the best analogy is to the last president to take office in the teeth of a recession: Ronald Reagan declined from a peak of 73 percent approval not long after the start of his first term to 48 percent a year later. Obama's direction is the same; 9.7 percent unemployment will do that.

Indeed the economy continued to stumble through the first half of Reagan's first term, to the point where, with unemployment peaking at 10.8 percent in December 1982, 31 percent of Americans strongly disapproved of his job performance - precisely the same as Obama's strong disapproval today.

We have seen a lot of evidence lately that Republicans are expressing more enthusiasm about voting at the moment, particularly in recent surveys on the upcoming elections in New Jersey and Virginia (see the analysis here, here, here and here). The "likely voters" tend to be far more Republican than all adults or registered voters than usual, and certainly more than in the fall of 2008.

But that said, the near universal assumption by commentators and pundits of an "enthusiasm gap" overlooks something important. As reviewed in his latest post, the latest ABC/Washington Post poll finds more Americans who "strongly approve" of Obama's performance as president (35%) than "strongly disapprove" (31%).

Yes, the Rasmussen Reports survey appears to sample and measure a consistently more hostile reaction to the President. Some of this is probably the result of their use of a "likely voter" screen to select respondents, some of it may be the result of their automated methodology. But even if you are distrust the Rasmussen survey as having a Republican bias, consider that as of today their voters include almost as many that strongly approve of Obama's performance (32%) as strongly disapprove (38%).

In other words, as I wrote back in August, there are about as many Americans thrilled with Obama's performance as angry about it, although the balance may tip slightly toward the negative among habitual voters. This is not to say that Democrats don't face a hostile political environment right now, but it's useful to keep the hostility in perspective.