Obama’s Comeback

You can see it coming: 1) President Obama has been rebounding in the polls. 2) The Democrats claim credit for a productive lame duck Congressional session, even though the highlight of the session was the Democrats’ failure to pass their own $1.1 trillion spending bill, and its only real achievement was extending the Bush tax cuts. And 3) at tomorrow night’s State of the Union speech, Obama will wrap himself in the Tucson shootings by seating victims and heroes with his wife Michelle. By Wednesday morning Obama will be this decade’s Comeback Kid.
So, what does it all mean? First, the comeback is real, even though it is far from what the Obama administration had hoped for. I think this graph, which shows Obama’s “approval index” among likely voters in the Rasmussen survey, depicts his comeback best:
obama_approval_index_january_24_2011.jpg
The approval index is the difference between those who strongly approve of Obama’s performance and those who strongly disapprove–a group that has long been a plurality of the electorate. As the chart shows, Obama has rebounded from an approval index that languished around -20 or -21 until today he stands at a mere -4. Other polls have documented similar movement. What is most striking is that Obama’s improvement comes from two sources: more voters strongly approve of his performance than was the case a few months ago, and, even more significant, those who strongly disapprove have declined in number.
The latter trend is actually clearer, and it began immediately after the November election. What explains it? Obama’s policies didn’t suddenly become more palatable to conservatives and moderates when the GOP recaptured the House. I think, rather, that after the election, many Americans concluded that Obama and the Reid/Pelosi Democrats had been defanged. As a result, feelings toward the President mellowed and his personal popularity–most Americans still think it is a fine thing to have an African-American President–reasserted itself. Many conservatives, who tend to be generous and mild-mannered, aren’t as negative toward Obama as they were just a few months ago.
Obama’s strong support has increased too, but that trend is more ambiguous and more consistent with the fluctuations we have seen over the last year. Further, Obama’s boost in strong support doesn’t date to November’s election. It has happened more recently, related perhaps to Democrats’ realization that Republicans are on the march in Washington, and also, perhaps, to hysteria surrounding the Jared Loughlin murders.
Note, too, that the biggest boost Obama’s approval has received in the last year did not follow the passage of Obamacare. Rather, it was his 2010 State of the Union speech that gave Obama his biggest spike, even though that speech was far from memorable. (Do you remember anything that Obama said? I don’t.)
So in the short term, Republicans should hold onto their hats. Obama’s speech tomorrow will be a reasonably skillful blend of cosmetic gestures toward the center and vicious attacks on Republicans. He will get a spike this year as he did last year, maybe more. The press will be ecstatic and will report every positive poll movement with glee. Obama will be touted as a virtual clone of Bill Clinton–only a Bill Clinton with deeper loyalty to the Left.
In the longer term, we are entering an ambiguous and unpredictable period. As battle lines are drawn over the next two years, Obama will once again be forced to defend policies that are unpopular with the American people–the reason for his decline in the first place. At the same time, he will be somewhat insulated. Pretty much anything the Republican House does will be blocked in the Senate, so it is unlikely that Obama will have to veto anything of significance. Instead, he will become a largely irrelevant figure. Foreign policy successes and failures can enter the mix, of course, but at this point it seems most likely that little will happen in Washington over the next two years–some spending moderation, one hopes, and a gradual improvement in the economy for which everyone will try to take credit–and accordingly, the public’s views of President Obama are likely to continue to moderate into a sort of benign neglect.
This might lay the groundwork for a second Obama administration, but it certainly isn’t what the far left had in mind when its candidate won the Democratic nomination in 2008.

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