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Obama Floats Above the Malaise in His Job Approval Ratings

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Carolyn Kaster/AP

On pa­per, 2016 has been a fairly tu­mul­tu­ous year for Pres­id­ent Obama. The pres­id­ent’s seni­or for­eign policy strategist, Ben Rhodes, ad­mit­ted to spin­ning mis­lead­ing nar­rat­ives to sell a con­tro­ver­sial nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an. The eco­nomy con­tin­ues to sput­ter along, with quarterly GDP growth ad­van­cing at its low­est level in two years. Obama’s own FBI dir­ect­or, James Comey, is sound­ing the alarm over a spike in vi­ol­ent crime in most of the largest U.S. cit­ies. Most re­cently, the pres­id­ent is­sued a con­tro­ver­sial dir­ect­ive re­quir­ing pub­lic schools to let trans­gender stu­dents choose the bath­room that fits their gender iden­tity, sidestep­ping pub­lic de­bate or any con­gres­sion­al role in the de­cision.  

Yet as the gen­er­al-elec­tion cam­paign be­gins, Obama en­joys his highest ap­prov­al rat­ing in the past two years—49 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the Real­Clear­Polit­ics av­er­age—while the Demo­crat­ic front-run­ner Hil­lary Clin­ton con­tin­ues to post his­tor­ic­ally aw­ful fa­vor­ab­il­ity num­bers. Obama is fin­ish­ing his fi­nal year in of­fice with Bernie Sanders-like con­ces­sions to the Left, while Clin­ton is mov­ing to the middle and not get­ting any cred­it for it.

It’s one of the most un­der-ex­amined para­doxes in our polit­ics today. Even as most voters think the coun­try is headed on the wrong track, Obama is float­ing above it all. The Te­flon that in­su­lated Trump from his myri­ad crit­ics dur­ing the primary has pro­tec­ted Obama from the ups-and-downs of polit­ic­al life. Loy­alty from his core base of mil­len­ni­als, Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, and true-blue pro­gress­ives has pre­ven­ted his ap­prov­al rat­ing from fall­ing be­low the low 40s—even at his pres­id­ency’s low­est mo­ments.

It isn’t as if Obama has hit a polit­ic­al sweet spot by pulling the coun­try to the left, in the way Ron­ald Re­agan used his con­ser­vat­ive vis­ion to push the Re­pub­lic­an Party to the right. After all, Obama’s party has suffered land­slide losses in the past two midterm elec­tions, and the two parties are run­ning evenly on the gen­er­ic con­gres­sion­al bal­lot. If Re­pub­lic­ans had settled on a less-di­vis­ive can­did­ate, in­stead of the most dis­liked nom­in­ee in his­tory, it’s likely they’d start with a siz­able ad­vant­age over Clin­ton.

A more con­cern­ing reas­on for Obama’s re­si­li­ency is that per­son­al­ity is more im­port­ant than policy in today’s rap­id-fire polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment—and the same factors that con­trib­ute to Amer­ica’s celebrity cul­ture are seep­ing in­to our polit­ics. Con­sider: Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ings on the eco­nomy (42 per­cent) and for­eign policy (47 per­cent) were un­der­wa­ter in last week’s CBS/New York Times poll, yet a ma­jor­ity ap­proved of his over­all per­form­ance. And how else do you ex­plain Clin­ton’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ing be­ing around 15 points lower than Obama’s, even though she de­fends his policies? New col­lege gradu­ates are strug­gling to find jobs and race re­la­tions have worsened, but most dis­af­fected Demo­crat­ic voters are not blam­ing the pres­id­ent. Usu­ally the out­go­ing pres­id­ent’s job ap­prov­al sets the tone for the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. But it’s Clin­ton, not Obama, who’s bear­ing the brunt of voter dis­sat­is­fac­tion.

Obama’s mas­tery of me­dia is a tell­tale reas­on that he’s been in­su­lated from the grim mood of the pub­lic. The rap­id changes in how voters con­sume news is hav­ing a ma­jor im­pact on their polit­ic­al out­look. Just a dec­ade ago, most voters would pick up a daily news­pa­per, scan the head­lines, and rely on a shared set of facts. Now in our mi­cro-tar­geted me­dia world, Amer­ic­ans are read­ing a more opin­ion­ated journ­al­ism that con­firms their preex­ist­ing bi­ases. Vir­al videos are more likely to res­on­ate in one’s so­cial-me­dia feed than straight news re­port­ing about the pres­id­ent’s for­eign policy. As this month’s dus­tup over Face­book’s news al­gorithms has demon­strated, so­cial me­dia feeds are a more con­sequen­tial gate­keep­er of in­form­a­tion than The New York Times.  

That means when Obama’s top for­eign policy ad­viser brags about the “echo cham­ber” he cre­ated in selling the Ir­an deal, he’s also be­ne­fit­ing from a changed me­dia eco­sys­tem in which Amer­ic­ans get the news they want, not all the news that’s fit to print. So even when Ben Rhodes boasts that he misled the pub­lic on the nature of the Ir­a­ni­an re­gime, the up­roar was largely con­fined to in­sider or par­tis­an circles, barely re­gis­ter­ing in the news feeds of those sym­path­et­ic to the pres­id­ent. It means that even though a plur­al­ity of voters op­pose the pres­id­ent’s po­s­i­tion on trans­gender bath­room ac­cess (46 per­cent to 41 per­cent in the CBS/NYTpoll), it’s the skep­tics that end up re­ceiv­ing pub­lic mock­ery. It means that Comey’s wor­ries about rising crime are re­leg­ated to the back pages, over­shad­owed by in­stances of ex­cess­ive po­lice vi­ol­ence.

No won­der we’re fa­cing an elec­tion in which two sets of voters are op­er­at­ing un­der two ver­sions of real­ity. Can­did­ates who can build up a reser­voir of loy­alty from their sup­port­ers can with­stand the dam­aging de­vel­op­ments that badly wound less­er rivals. Obama and Trump have proven their Te­flon while Clin­ton lost hers long ago. In her race against Trump, she must prove her­self as sturdy as a cast-iron skil­let.

Josh Kraushaar

Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal, and pens the weekly "Against the Grain" column.

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