January 17th, 2023
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After a difficult year, President Obama is enjoying a modest rebound ahead of State of the Union address Tuesday. His approval rating has increased to around 46 percent over the last month, according to an average of polls taken over the last month, up from 42 percent in the weeks after the decisive Republican victory in the midterm elections.
It is a relatively small increase, but it is more impressive in the context of the unusual stability of Mr. Obama’s approval rating, which hovered between 42 and 44 percent for 15 consecutive months. In 2016, the president’s approval ratings should be a telling indicator of whether the country is likely to support another Democratic administration.
There is a well-established relationship between the pace of economic growth and a president’s approval ratings, and Mr. Obama is clearly benefiting from signs of accelerating economic growth. For the first time since the start of the recession, more Americans believe the economic conditions are good or excellent than poor. Consumer confidence rose to an 11-year high last week, according to the University of Michigan consumer sentiment index.
The increase in Mr. Obama’s ratings also comes amid a flurry of executive actions or promised ones on immigration, climate change, Cuba and Internet policy. Mr. Obama’s immigration initiative may be at least partly responsible for his rebound. His rating among Hispanic adults jumped decisively, perhaps by as much as 15 percentage points, in the weeks after his decision to defer deportation and offer work authorization for up to five million immigrants who lack it. Still, there is not much evidence that liberal voters over all have become notably more supportive or energized as a result of a more active and progressive administration. Mr. Obama’s approval ratings did not increase by a disproportionate — or even notable — amount among Democratic or self-identified liberal voters, according to Gallup data.
Only a handful of modern elections have not had an incumbent president on the ballot. In these contests, the president’s approval ratings are unsurprisingly less important than when a president is running for re-election. So Mr. Obama’s approval ratings will matter in 2016, but it is hard to say exactly how much.
The balance of evidence suggests that the break-even point for the presidential party’s odds of victory is at or nearly 50 percent approval. If the only thing you knew about the 2016 election was Mr. Obama’s approval rating on Election Day, you might guess that the Democrats had a 37 percent chance of holding the White House with a 46 percent rating — rather than a 23 percent chance with a 41 percent rating. The difference between 41 and 46 might be worth between one and two percentage points to the Democratic candidate in 2016 — the difference between a close race and a modest but clear Republican victory.
Mr. Obama’s surge among Hispanic voters might be particularly telling. It is a sign that Democratic-leaning voters dissatisfied with Mr. Obama’s performance might not be so disillusioned that they can’t be lured back to the Democrats by the issues and messages that brought them to the party in the first place. The president’s ratings among liberals and Democrats remain mediocre — perhaps only in the low 70s and low 80s, respectively — suggesting that there are additional, low-hanging opportunities for Mr. Obama and his party’s next nominee.
Of course, there’s a long time between now and 2016. Mr. Obama’s ratings could continue to climb with sustained economic growth; they might relapse with another round of bad news. But the modest improvement in Mr. Obama’s standing suggests that the Republicans cannot count on an easy midterm-like victory if the economy continues to grow at a healthy pace.