Obama: How Popular?

With Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office drawing–blessedly!–to a close, every news outlet will be doing 100-day retrospectives. (In itself a weird concept, reminiscent of LeAnn Rimes, the Early Years.) A constant feature of these analyses is sure to be the claim that Obama is very popular.

This comparison by Judith Klinghoffer has been making the rounds on the web today; it is titled “Obama’s Poll Numbers Trail Those of W; Gallup Covers It Up.” Klinghoffer contrasts President George W. Bush’s 62 percent Gallup approval rating at the same point in his first term with the 56 percent who, in a just-reported Gallup survey, said that Obama is doing an “excellent” or “good” job. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the right comparison. The Gallup/USA Today survey had a different (larger) set of possible answers, including “just OK,” than the typical Gallup Presidential approval poll. Some of those “OKs” would translate into approval in the standard format.

Currently, Gallup shows Obama’s approval spiking up to 66 percent, a very good number; click to enlarge:

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It’s not clear what would account for the current spike. The internals of the poll don’t appear to be available, but my guess is that Gallup just sampled a few more Democrats. I don’t, frankly, have a lot of confidence in Gallup’s methods. Still, 66 percent is undeniably a good number.

That said, it is not extraordinary. As Klinghoffer notes, at the same point in their first term, George W. Bush scored 62 percent (despite Florida!); Jimmy Carter 63 percent; and Ronald Reagan 67 percent in the Gallup poll. Among recent Presidents, the lowest-rated at this stage was Bill Clinton at 55 percent.

We can contrast Gallup’s numbers with Scott Rasmussen’s. The big difference between Rasmussen’s survey and Gallup’s is that Rasmussen’s is a “likely voter” poll. Rasmusses also seems to control for party affiliation in a way that makes his numbers less volatile and, I think, more realistic. In Rasmussen’s survey, Obama’s approval rating has been between 54 percent and 56 percent for some time now, and “strong approvals” outnumber “strong disapprovals” by only a few percentage points.

The bottom line, I think, is that most Americans haven’t given up on Obama. Nor should they–after all, they elected him just a few months ago. At the same time, his overall approval, especially with those who pay a minimal amount of attention and vote, is nothing extraordinary. What is really significant, I think, is that Obama’s popularity is muted even though the ill effects of his policies have yet to be felt. Taxes haven’t gone up yet; inflation hasn’t hit; deficits have not yet proved (as they undoubtedly will) to greatly exceed Obama’s estimates; years of slow growth and elevated unemployment due to statist policies are still in the future; and foreign policy setbacks are yet to come.

Three months into his first term, Ronald Reagan was popular because Americans saw that he had a bold and confident vision for America’s future. He remained popular for eight years and was re-elected in a landslide because his free-market and strong defense policies were resoundingly successful. The same fate, I fear, is not in store for Barack Obama. Or for America.

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