There is a lot going on in the political world to talk about today, but in the background of the raging presidential campaign President Barack Obama hit a second-term milestone today. His job approval polling average is now once again "above water" -- defined as more people who approve of the job he's doing than disapprove. This might not sound all that momentous, but it is actually the first time in almost three years that it has happened. Obama's public job approval has been on a major upswing this year, which (if it continues) might significantly boost the chances of the Democratic nominee winning in November. So while Obama's poll rise hasn't been a topic for conversation in the presidential race so far, it could prove decisive later on.
As I mentioned, there are plenty of other things to focus on -- which may, in fact, be the point. There were crucial primaries last night. Bernie Sanders scored an impressive upset in Michigan. Donald Trump's steamroller hasn't slowed down. Marco Rubio should be contemplating whether to drop out before Florida votes next week. Ted Cruz is now the only viable Republican alternative to Trump. Democrats are debating again tonight, and Republicans hold another of their on-screen brawls tomorrow night. Next Tuesday's voting could lock the race up on either side. So there's no shortage of things to talk about.
But, again, this might be the whole point. Congress has been fairly quiet of late, due to the budget deal cut last year when John Boehner made his exit (no fiscal cliffs or shutdowns in sight, unlike this season during previous years). There's going to be an enormous battle over Obama's Supreme Court judicial nomination, but until he actually names someone this fight has been far in the background for most people. The presidential race has been sucking up all the oxygen in the political world, to put all of this another way.
Presidential elections get people to focus on politics who normally don't pay much attention. A lot of them are probably remembering why they voted for Obama in the first place, right about now. Obama certainly looks a lot more presidential than some of those vying to take his place, to put it mildly. And both Democrats running, whether they choose it or not, will get described as running for "Barack Obama's third term," insuring that Obama's legacy will be a matter for debate all the way to November.
Hillary Clinton has fully embraced this concept, much more than Bernie Sanders, but they still both have some nice things to say about Obama on the stump. Obama is still very popular among Democrats, so they're playing to their audience by doing so. They're doing a good job of talking up his record, something Obama himself has been notably bad at doing for his entire presidency.
At the same time, the Republicans are describing their view of the smoking hellscape that America has become under the foul tyrant Obama. Many independent voters are looking around and wondering how unhinged from reality these candidates truly have become. Unemployment is below five percent and businesses are hiring once again. The auto industry is doing fine. Sure, America has long-term problems, but many of these existed before Obama ever began his run for the White House and many of them will exist long afterwards. Obamacare hasn't killed jobs, and tens of millions have actually benefited from it. None -- that's zero -- of the doom-and-gloom catastrophes predicted by Republicans during Obama's term in office have come to pass. Oh, and gas is finally cheap again. Things ain't so bad out there, which is a serious disconnect from the way Republican candidates are portraying the current situation to their base voters.
All of this has added up to the American public being pretty bullish on the job Obama's been doing. This trend started in December of last year, and has shot upwards amazingly fast in 2016. In the "rolling average" of all public polling at Real Clear Politics, Obama hit his milestone today as 48.4 percent of the public now approves of the job he's doing, while only 47.4 percent disapprove (these figures are "as of this writing" -- sometimes they get adjusted throughout the day). That is one full percent above water, which might not sound like that big a deal, but when you consider that the last day this was true for Obama was June 7, 2013, you can better understand its importance.
Obama was sworn into his second term with an approval rating above 50 percent, in what is known as the "honeymoon" period (this was his "second honeymoon," of course). A majority of the public always approves of the president it just elected, to state the obvious. But, usually within the first six months or so, the honeymoon period almost always wears off. In Obama's case, this dropoff was dramatic and crossed over into "underwater" territory in June of his first year (of his second term). For almost three years, it has stayed beneath the waves. Today, it crossed back over.
By the end of 2013, Obama's daily job approval average had briefly dipped below 40 percent. This coincided (not surprisingly) with the government shutdown battle and the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website. At his lowest point, he was more than 12 percent below water in the polls. In 2014, Obama recovered somewhat at the beginning of the year (up to around 44 percent), but then fell back to the range of 41 to 42 percent. He spent most of the year below water by double digits. After the second grim midterm election for Obama, he actually got a big boost at the start of 2015. But after this quick rise, he hovered in the range of 45 to 46 percent all year long, and he was below water by over four percent for the whole time. At the end of last year, he slumped back down to below 44 percent, finishing the year off at 43.6 percent -- and almost eight percent underwater. That was only two and a half months ago.
Since then, Obama has seen a burst of good news in the polling. Today's daily job approval average of 48.4 percent is almost a full five points higher than where he started the year -- and that's a remarkably steep rise for such a short period of time. Some of Obama's individual polls are even better. The last two polls taken nationwide were the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, which put Obama at 49 percent approval, and the ABC News-Washington Post poll, which put him at 51 percent.
Of course, polls go up and they go down. This all could be just a temporary spike in the polling. As mentioned, the president is about to wage a huge fight over the Supreme Court with Senate Republicans. Having such a fight might even improve Obama's standing with the public, since it will all be about Obama's political legacy. Or it could cause a downswing -- anything's possible in polling.
Two-term presidents don't normally see big polling improvements during their final year in office, except for a kind of reverse-honeymoon which normally happens during their lame-duck period (their final three months in office). The public is usually willing to cut the outgoing president a break, even if they just elected the other party's guy to replace him. Even George W. Bush saw his approval rise modestly, at the very end (up from 25 percent approval to only 29 percent approval, but a slight rise nonetheless). But it's rare for a second-term president to see such gains at the start of his final year in office, rather than at the end. So far, Obama's trend has been pretty solid for the past three months, so it seems like it is more than just a momentary blip.
If Obama's rise in the polls proves to be temporary, and his numbers sink beneath the waves once again, then the milestone he reached today won't be that memorable or remarkable. But if he sustains the level of approval he is currently at -- or continues to improve -- then it's going to be a lot easier for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders to get elected in November. There is a direct correlation between how a president is seen in the public eye during an election year and how well their party does at the ballot box. The message of "stay the course" becomes a lot easier to make when most of the public approves of that course.
President Obama's average daily approval rating is above water for the first time in roughly 1,000 days. Not many have noticed this milestone yet, but if he continues to improve or even just holds onto his recent gains, it'll be a subject that will garner a lot of attention -- especially out on the campaign trail.
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