Why Obama’s Approval Rating Isn’t Higher

Controversies could prevent him from getting credit for the improving economy.

The good news for President Obama and his administration is that all the controversies swirling around the White House have not had a significant impact on his job-approval ratings. The bad news is that, like so many other second-term administrations, Obama’s may end up spending so much of its last four years fighting fires and fending off congressional inquiries that it gets little else done. Even if Obama manages to douse some of the current controversies, new ones, even minor ones, could constantly distract him and throw him off message to the point that he can’t make headway on any of his major proposals.

History has not been kind to second-term presidents. By that point, the novelty has worn off, and the energy, the new ideas, and the sense of purpose are lost. Often wars, recessions, or scandals plague the final four years; second-term presidents become like pitchers who have lost their fastball.

Obama’s job-approval ratings in the Gallup Poll have averaged between 47 percent and 51 percent each week since mid-February. This past week, June 3-9, his approval rating was 48 percent and his disapproval rating was 45 percent. All of the other major polls except for Fox News’s show essentially no change in his standing from a couple of months ago, before renewed attention to Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service revelations, the Associated Press phone-records flap, and the recent leaks about the National Security Agency’s electronic-surveillance system. Although it’s plausible that the sheer weight of these controversies will begin to take a toll on Obama’s popularity (and Gallup’s daily tracking poll on Wednesday showed some slippage in Obama’s approval rating), it hasn’t happened yet in any consistent way.

How any White House can garner policy momentum when surrounded by constant disclosures, investigations, and saturation media coverage is a real question. When an administration is in that situation, the president has a hard time getting credit for accomplishments in other areas that normally would benefit him and his party politically.

Two things are undoubtedly true for White House occupants. First, if big things like the economy are doing well, a president will get at least some of the credit. Conversely, if things are going badly, the president will get a great deal, if not all, of the blame. It may or may not be fair, but that’s life, at least in politics.

Second, midterm elections tend to be a referendum on the White House incumbent. If a president is popular, his party benefits. If a president is unpopular, voters often send a message of displeasure by supporting candidates from the opposition party. Voters are generally more likely to punish than reward, and that’s the way it has always been.

Right now, the public is increasingly optimistic about the state of the economy, after having gone through what my friend, economist Sid Jones, calls “the longest, deepest, and most diffused” economic downturn since the Great Depression. Both the Conference Board’s consumer-confidence measurement and the University of Michigan’s national Index of Consumer Sentiment are at their highest levels in five or six years. In recent months, the National Federation of Independent Business’s small-business optimism index, a survey of small-business people across the country, has been soaring. The economy appears to be experiencing a hiccup in the second quarter of this year, with growth expected to slow down from 2.4 percent last quarter to 1.8 percent during the current quarter. But, according to this month’s Blue Chip Economic Indicators survey of 54 top economists, the experts expect growth to go up to 2.3 percent in the third quarter and 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter, followed by 2.7 percent and 2.8 percent in the first and second quarters of next year, respectively, and 2.9 percent in each of the last two quarters of 2014. This is not a spectacular rate of growth, but it is respectable, and it suggests that the economy will be gradually pulling itself out of its half-decade slump.

At the same time, the Congressional Budget Office is projecting that the federal deficit will shrink to $642 billion in fiscal 2013, the lowest level since 2008, thanks to economic growth, tax hikes implemented over the past year, sequestration, and some onetime events related to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. CBO is also predicting that the deficit will be about 4 percent of gross domestic product this year, down from 10.1 percent of GDP in 2009. The agency’s baseline projections go on to estimate that the deficit will fall to 2.1 percent of GDP by 2015, lower than the 3.2 percent average over the last 40 years—lower even than the 2.4 percent average in the 40 years leading up to the 2008 recession.

All of these things are good news, and are certainly contrary to the warnings by congressional Republicans that tax hikes would ruin the economy and the warnings by Obama and other Democrats that budget sequestration would do the same. Obviously, both sides missed the mark and underestimated the effect of economic growth and recovery muscling through potentially adverse events like tax hikes or a sharp cutback in government spending. However, if the administration is bogged down in controversy, voters won’t be handing the president or anyone else any laurels for the economic recovery. That’s what Obama, his administration, and congressional Democrats facing voters next year ought to worry about.

This article appears in the June 15, 2013, edition of National Journal as Second-Term Blues.

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