Obama Poll Watch -- December, 2010

Obama once again charted an unbelievably stable month in terms of approval ratings. The mildly good news was in hisrating, which dropped significantly over the course of December.
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Mildly Good News

President Barack Obama had a mildly good month in the polls during December. Not a fantastic month, mind you; maybe not even a great month... but a mildly good month, nonetheless.

Continuing last month's trend (if you can even properly call it a "trend," that is...), Obama once again charted an unbelievably stable month in terms of approval ratings. The mildly good news was in his disapproval rating, which dropped significantly over the course of December. In fact, Obama had the second-best month he's ever had, in terms of a dropping disapproval rate. The note of caution, though -- which makes this only mildly good news for him -- is that all of the drop in disapproval went to the "undecided" category, and none of it translated into a bump in approval.

Let's take a look at Obama's actual chart, to see what I'm talking about:

[Click on graph to see larger-scale version.]

December, 2010

As you can see, Obama's approval rating remained flat, while his disapproval rating dipped significantly. December was a busy month in Washington, which translated into more people in the rest of the country giving the president the benefit of the doubt -- although Obama hasn't actually won them over to full support yet.

December started with the announcement of a deal struck between Obama's White House and the Senate Republicans. The terms of the deal were that the Bush tax cuts (which were due to expire January first) would be extended for everyone (including the ultra-wealthy) for the next two years -- in exchange for a year-long unemployment benefit extension, as well as some minor stimulus goodies for Obama and the Democrats. This was somewhat of a surprise to political wonks, it should be mentioned, as it will put the next big political tax cut battle smack in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign. Obama seems to be betting that the economy will have recovered enough by then that fighting hard against tax cuts for the rich will be a politically viable position to run on, at that point. This is a risky strategy, to say the least, since Democrats have not noticeably made much political hay out of the issue in the past few decades (to put it politely).

This tax deal enraged the Left, it should be noted. Obama originally campaigned on repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, so it was seen as a serious betrayal of principles on the Left for him to cave on this issue. However, even before the aftermath, most of the public registered approval for Obama's deal -- which (it has to be said) annoyed the Left even more deeply.

But, when considering whether the deal was a good one or not, one has to now balance it with the other things the lame duck Democrats were able to get done -- both as part of the tax deal, and also what got passed through Congress because they weren't wasting all the available time fighting a tax cut "battle royale." Unemployment benefits were extended for a full year (and not just a few scant months), for instance. Everyone's take-home paycheck is about to get two percent bigger for the next year, as well. And after the tax deal went through, Obama won a significant foreign policy victory by getting the Senate to ratify the "New START" with Russia, then got medical care for the 9/11 first responders, and even managed to pass the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of barring gays from openly serving in the military, all in the lame duck Congress.

No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, the lame duck session has to be seen as extremely productive, and containing some political wins and losses for both sides.

What all of this translated into, in terms of the polls, was "no news" and "good news." Obama's approval rating -- astonishingly, for the second straight month -- did not budge one tiny little bit. Obama has put up exactly the same job approval number for the past three months -- 45.5 percent. When you think about what these three months covered, politically, it's practically unbelievable -- the midterm elections, the lame duck session of Congress, the tax cut deal Obama cut with Republicans, and all the rest of it. A lot of ground was covered, but not in Obama's approval numbers. This is, obviously, the "no news" segment. In terms of "good news," Obama's disapproval rate sharply dropped this month -- almost a full percentage point -- from 49.0 percent to 48.1. This is the second-largest drop in disapproval ratings Obama has ever posted, and it continues a streak of three solid months of dropping disapproval ratings. Good news, indeed, for Obamaphiles.

Overall Trends

As happened in the previous month, the daily numbers Obama posted in December were also remarkably stable. Obama started the first day of December with a 45.9 percent daily approval rating. This number then rose very early in the month to a daily high of 46.2 percent, but then dropped back mid-month to a low of 44.7 percent -- before rising again to close the month out at 45.4 percent. The total fluctuation was only 1.5 percent -- the second-most-stable month Obama's managed in daily approval ratings (second only to last month's 1.1 percent fluctuation, I should mention).

As with last month, Obama's daily disapproval rate fluctuated a bit more, but not much. For the second month in a row, Obama's disapproval numbers stayed within a 2.0 percent range all month long. He started the month very high, and hit his highest number on the second day of December, at 49.6 percent. His disapproval rate then dropped quickly to 47.6 percent in the next week -- a number he would hit twice more in the middle of the month. He ended the month only slightly up from this low, at 47.9 percent.

As for the overall monthly averages, Obama stayed at 45.5 percent approval for the third straight month. But the real news was on the disapproval side, where Obama dropped from a monthly average of 49.0 percent to 48.1 percent -- in a single month. To put this in some perspective, Obama has only managed to drop this number for five months out of a total of twenty-three months of his term in office so far (his first month in office cannot be counted, as it is used as a baseline). The five months Obama has dropped his disapproval rates are (chronologically):

0.1% -- 10/09

1.0% -- 5/10

0.6% -- 10/10

0.1% -- 11/10

0.9% -- 12/10

You'll notice that three out of those five numbers were posted in a streak Obama has enjoyed over the past three months. Since September, Obama has gotten his disapproval numbers down a total of 1.6 percent -- which may not sound like a lot, but is good news indeed when you look at the rest of his numbers on this line. Now, again, to put this in perspective, Obama's disapproval numbers have risen 2.1 percentage points inside a single month as recently as August, 2010. In other words, in three months of good numbers, Obama hasn't even made back the ground he lost in a single month last summer. Which is why all of this -- good news though it may be -- is still only mildly good news, at best.

Again, for perspective's sake, here is a chart which wildly explodes the vertical scale (so it only covers a total of five percentage points), and only shows Obama's poll numbers for the past year (which are still so uncannily stable, as these things go, that such a detailed chart is even necessary, in order to truly see the movement in the lines):

[Click on graph to see larger-scale version.]

This chart shows the significance of the drop in disapproval over the past three months, as well as the amount of ground Obama still has to make up both in disapproval and approval ratings -- if he ever wants to see his numbers "above water" once again (where his approval is higher than his disapproval). On the "net above water/underwater" scale, Obama is also making progress, leading to more (mildly) good statistical news for him. Since the month his lines first crossed over (last July), Obama has posted a better and better gap in this regard. Spiking immediately to 4.2 percent below the waves, Obama has since shrunk this gap every single month, until in December it was only 2.6 percent negative. As I said, good news -- but only mildly so.

Other mildly good news from last month -- for the second straight month, Obama did not post a single all-time high or low in either daily or monthly numbers. His monthly approval, admittedly, is still pretty close to his all-time low (at 45.3 percent, back in August); but his monthly disapproval number is over a point-and-a-half from his all-time high (49.7 percent, back in September). And neither daily approval nor daily disapproval got really close to all-time highs or lows at any point during December.

Obama's overall trends are a little hard to predict at this point, even with all this overwhelmingly-mild good news breaking out. The one thing that last months' numbers show for certain is that all of the movement in the public opinion polls was from "disapprove of the job Obama's doing" to "undecided." The entire 0.9 percent that dropped off Obama's disapproval was added to his undecided numbers, in other words. This pushed the "undecided" line (the black line, in the first chart in this article) up to a high of 6.4 percent. Since Obama's "honeymoon" period ended (in June, 2009), this has been the high-water mark for his undecided rating, which he has hit three times, now.

Therein lies a cautious tale, when it comes to predicting trends. Now, you'd normally expect that people who disapprove of Obama's job performance, when they change their minds, would go through a period of indecision about how they feel about the president. And then maybe (just maybe) Obama could convince them to fully support what he's doing, which would show up in subsequent months. Well, historically, that hasn't ever happened. Both previous times when Obama raised his undecided numbers to 6.4 percent, it was followed by a month where (both times) his disapproval rate jumped 1.2 percentage points (in September, 2009, and again in June, 2010). Both of these months also posted small downturns in Obama's approval ratings, as well.

Can Obama reverse this historical trend this time around? Only time will tell. Historically (if that's any guide) Obama hits these "plateau" situations for a few months, then his approval ratings take another dive. This could indeed happen again.

Looking forward, Republicans are going to be dominating the news for the first few weeks of January, as they take control of the House of Representatives. But then later in the month, Barack Obama is going to have the biggest bully pulpit of the year, as he delivers his "State Of The Union" speech to a joint session of Congress -- which will reach more Americans than any other speech he gives throughout the year. This didn't help him much in the job approval polls last year, but this year could be different. Republicans could have already overreached in terms of what the voters want them to do -- even in the few short weeks before President Obama gives his primetime speech. So your guess is as good as mine as to what the next month bodes for Obama's poll numbers, I have to say.

For the time being, though, it's been a mildly good month for the White House. Even with all the fractious political fights in the lame duck congressional session which played out last month, Obama -- once again -- is proving to be steadier than the entire political punditocracy would ever have given him credit for.

[Obama Poll Watch Data:]

Sources And Methodology

ObamaPollWatch.com is an admittedly amateur effort, but we do try to stay professional when it comes to revealing our sources and methodology. All our source data comes from RealClearPolitics.com; specifically from their daily presidential approval ratings "poll of polls" graphic page. We take their daily numbers, log them, and then average each month's data into a single number -- which is then shown on our monthly charts here (a "poll of polls of polls," if you will...). You can read a much more detailed explanation of our source data and methodology on our "About Obama Poll Watch" page, if you're interested.

Questions or comments? Use the Email Chris page to drop me a private note.

Column Archives

Obama's All-Time Statistics


Highest Monthly Approval -- 2/09 -- 63.4%

Lowest Monthly Approval -- 8/10 -- 45.3%

Highest Monthly Disapproval -- 9/10 -- 49.7%

Lowest Monthly Disapproval -- 1/09 -- 19.6%


Highest Daily Approval -- 2/15/09 -- 65.5%

Lowest Daily Approval -- 10/17/10 -- 44.2%

Highest Daily Disapproval -- 9/26/10 -- 51.2%

Lowest Daily Disapproval -- 1/29/09 -- 19.3%

Obama's Raw Monthly Data

[All-time high in bold, all-time low underlined.]

Month -- (Approval / Disapproval / Undecided)

12/10 -- 45.5 / 48.1 / 6.4

11/10 -- 45.5 / 49.0 / 5.5

10/10 -- 45.5 / 49.1 / 5.4

09/10 -- 45.7 / 49.7 / 4.6

08/10 -- 45.3 / 49.5 / 5.2

07/10 -- 46.6 / 47.4 / 6.0

06/10 -- 47.6 / 46.7 / 5.7

05/10 -- 48.1 / 45.5 / 6.4

04/10 -- 47.8 / 46.5 / 5.7

03/10 -- 48.1 / 46.4 / 5.5

02/10 -- 47.9 / 46.1 / 6.0

01/10 -- 49.2 / 45.3 / 5.5

12/09 -- 49.4 / 44.9 / 5.7

11/09 -- 51.1 / 43.5 / 5.4

10/09 -- 52.2 / 41.9 / 5.9

09/09 -- 52.7 / 42.0 / 5.3

08/09 -- 52.8 / 40.8 / 6.4

07/09 -- 56.4 / 38.1 / 5.5

06/09 -- 59.8 / 33.6 / 6.6

05/09 -- 61.4 / 31.6 / 7.0

04/09 -- 61.0 / 30.8 / 8.2

03/09 -- 60.9 / 29.9 / 9.2

02/09 -- 63.4 / 24.4 / 12.2

01/09 -- 63.1 / 19.6 / 17.3

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