Obama Poll Watch [October 2009] -- Flattening Trends

Is the absence of a trend a trend?

Much like Sherlock Holmes' non-barking nocturnal canine, the remarkable thing about President Barack Obama's poll numbers last month was that nothing remarkable happened. Both trendlines were pretty flat for the month, which was the second month in a row of little movement. Things are not getting much better for Obama's approval rate, but then neither are they getting much worse.

This is good news, of a sort, because what preceded it was a pretty steep drop in the polls for Obama. But for two months in a row now, Obama has stopped this trend. He has, however, not reversed it yet. So, for now "no news is good news" is going to have to be good enough.

We'll dig into these numbers a bit here, and then we continue with our look back at previous presidents, and how Obama stacks up to them, by taking a look at Ronald Reagan's numbers -- which bear a striking similarity to Obama's so far.

Updated charts of Obama compared to G.W. Bush, Clinton, and G.H.W. Bush are available (as always) at my ObamaPollWatch.com site.

But enough of this shameless plugging of websites, let's get on to this month's charts:

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


October 2009

As you can see, the trendlines are holding pretty steady for Obama.

October started off on a very strange note for Obama, when it was announced that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama himself seemed a little bemused at the choice, but the Republicans (as Republicans are wont to do) went overboard with criticizing the choice. Somehow it was a "political liability" for Obama to have won one of the most (if not the most) prestigious awards on the planet. Um, what? Obama's poll numbers rose at this point, but it was a mini-bump at best, which I'll talk about in a bit.

The media woke up last month from an eight-year nap and discovered that America has troops in Afghanistan. Who knew? This issue was served up as some sort of existential crisis by the talking heads, who all tried to portray Obama as somehow weak for taking his time deciding how many troops he will send to the country next spring. The "next spring" part of that concept was completely and totally ignored by the media, since it did not fit their preconceived storyline. The Pentagon brass did their best to paint Obama into a corner, and the media went along for the ride. But while it was a continuing theme all month, the story won't really get big until Obama does announce what he's going to do there, so it didn't affect Obama's poll numbers much either way.

Healthcare reform grinded on in Congress, with some actual progress being made by both houses. But my guess is that most Americans (the ones who aren't reading wonky microscopic analyses of poll numbers, I should say) are getting tired of the whole debate. America has the attention span of about two weeks, max; and I think most people have begun tuning the whole thing out, and won't get interested again until something actually gets passed. This is just my gut feeling, of course. I do my best to keep the interest level up with gratuitous sports metaphor usage (see: "Halftime At The Healthcare Reform Superbowl" for instance), but it gets hard at times, even I admit. Healthcare reform will likely make progress in the upcoming month, but likely won't near the finish line until December. The big story this month was, once again, the media falling flat on their collective faces after spending months patting themselves on the back and complimenting each other on their cleverness in pronouncing the public option deader than doornails. Much to their astonishment, the public option seems to be surviving in both the House and the Senate.

But let's take a closer look at Obama's October numbers, and then we'll take a look at what they mean and the overall trends. Barack Obama's approval numbers were down last month by a half a percent, to a new monthly low of 52.2 percent. While this was a bigger drop than last month's 0.1 percent decline, it's still nowhere near as alarming as his seven percent drop in July and August combined. The big news for Obama is pretty small, but at least it's good news -- his disapproval number actually went down, for the first time since he took office. Granted, it only declined a tenth of a percent, from 42.0 to 41.9 percent, but it still marks a reversal of the earlier steep climb of Obama's disapproval number. But with both of these trendlines staying so flat, it's hard to tell what they're going to do next. And at the end of the month, both numbers started turning against Obama, and will bear watching next month.


Overall Trends

Looking within the month at the daily numbers shows that Obama hit a peak around mid-month, and has been slipping since then. The third day of the month, Obama hit 51.6 percent approval, then climbed to 53.6 percent mid-month. But by the end of the month, this had fallen back to 51.6 percent again, meaning he made a few points, and then gave them back again. One more piece of good news for Obama (which I believe I forgot to mention last month) is that for the second straight month he did not hit an all-time low in his daily approval. His low point came at the end of August, when he sank to 51.2 percent, and he hasn't been as low since. While the numbers haven't moved around much since then, and the trendline has been pretty flat, at least he's not setting new lows each month anymore.

Obama's disapproval numbers were much more active last month than his approval numbers. While approval only moved around within a 2.1 percent range, his disapproval numbers swung back and forth 4.9 points. He started the month around 41 percent, and then actually fell below 40 percent in mid-month (39.4) for the first time since the beginning of August. But this trend reversed itself in the last half of the month, and Obama hit 44.3 percent just before month's end -- a new all-time daily high for disapproval.

What this all means is that while the numbers average out looking pretty good for Obama, because we only post one number per month it's hard to see what was really going on. Obama's numbers started rising in September, fell back a bit as we entered October, hit a high mid-month, and then have fallen back a bit since.

Meaning he enters November with the trendlines against him. November will likely bring progress on the healthcare reform front, but probably not passage of a final bill, which will likely wait until after Thanksgiving. But Obama is set to announce his Afghanistan policy this month, which is going to have a strange effect on his numbers. If Obama announces a large increase in troops, it may turn some of his base negative, and he may actually pick up support from people who are generally against him. Whether these two counter-intuitive trends will cancel each other out or not remains to be seen. But if healthcare reform does indeed pass this year, Obama is going to get a big bump when it does happen, so while November may not be a good month for the president, December may be a lot better for him. We'll see.


Obama v. Ronald Reagan

We continue this month in our march through the past, comparing our current president with the previous residents of the Oval Office. For updated charts on Clinton and both Bushes, see the ObamaPollWatch page. But this month our featured past president is none other than Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Let's start with Reagan's charts, for both his terms in office.

[Click on graphs to see larger-scale versions.]

Normally, this is the spot where I offer up a quick review of what happened during past presidencies, but I got lucky because Paul Abrams wrote a Huffington Post article today about the economy under Ronald Reagan's first term, so I will just direct you to his fine work instead. Go ahead, check it out -- I can wait. You might find it helpful to refer to the charts below while reading, as Abrams mentions some very specific dates in it.

All done? Good! Ronald Reagan is a very interesting president to compare to Barack Obama, because they both attempted big things during their first year in office, and because they both had some pretty grim economic issues to deal with. Of course, Obama faced different crises than Reagan and I won't quibble as to whose situation was more dire.

Because I found it very interesting to chart Obama against Reagan. Here are both terms of Reagan versus Obama so far:

And here is just Reagan's first term versus Obama, to make it even clearer what I'm talking about:

Now, I'm not about to claim that history is repeating itself, or that Reagan's numbers are going to be a harbinger of Obama's numbers in the near future. But it certainly could work out that way.

Reagan's first term graphs are remarkable for their slow and gradual trendlines. Reagan started off extremely popular, then saw his numbers sink for two straight years until his approval had fallen below 40 percent and his disapproval had climbed above 50 -- dangerous territory for any president to be in. But then, at this nadir, the tide turned. I referenced Abrams' article earlier, because it largely said what I was going to say here -- this was due mostly to the economy recovering. In general, when economic times are good, people approve of what politicians are doing; and when times get tough, people tend to be more negative.

But the economy doesn't turn on a dime. It takes a while to reorient. The stock market's revival and the official end of the recession is one thing, but getting everyone back to work is another. Unemployment numbers always lag behind the other economic indicators, and most economists today predict that the jobs won't start coming back until next year, at the earliest. This means unemployment will officially top ten percent, which no president likes to see happen on their watch.

It also means the economic malaise may drag down Obama's approval for some time to come. While up until now Obama has held firmly onto his base -- which I define here as "the percent of people who voted for him" -- this support may start to slide next year. He'll get a bump from signing healthcare reform, but until the jobs start coming back, he's going to be facing a headwind.

If this scenario plays out, the political question will be whether the trend turns around for Obama in time for the midterm elections. If unemployment hasn't turned around by this time next year, we're all going to have to get used to seeing a lot more Republicans in Congress. If, however, Obama is beginning the same sort of approval recovery that Reagan enjoyed for the last two years of his first term, then Democrats will have more of a chance of holding their ground in Congress.


[Obama Poll Watch Data:]

Column Archives


Obama's All-Time Statistics


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

Lowest Monthly Approval -- 10/09 -- 52.2%

Highest Monthly Disapproval -- 9/09 -- 42.0%

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


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

Lowest Daily Approval -- 8/20/09 -- 51.2%

Highest Daily Disapproval -- 10/28/09 -- 44.3%

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)

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


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


Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com