Obama's Teflon Presidency?

US President Barack Obama speaks during a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan in the Rose Garden
US President Barack Obama speaks during a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, May 16, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Is Barack Obama our nation's second "Teflon president"? The question has occurred to me before, but it became impossible to ignore after the last week of "Scandalgate." Even after multiple scandals all vying for the top headline throughout the week, over the weekend CNN reported poll numbers showing Obama currently enjoys 53 percent of the public's approval for the job he's doing. His numbers actually rose from the last time the poll was taken, when Obama was at 51 percent approval. That's pretty stunning news, after the week the president just had. Which is why it's now time to ask the question -- does Obama have the "Teflon" quality of having nothing stick to him, no matter what?

Of course, this might be a premature conclusion to draw, for quite a number of reasons. The first of which is that it's still pretty early, as Washington scandal cycles go (except for Benghazi, which has been around for months). More revelations are likely on the way, and they could bend public opinion in either direction, really. But you can bet the Republicans are going to spend a whole lot of time digging, for the foreseeable future. So even if nothing major comes to light, there will still be a steady stream of wonky details from congressional committees, which the pundits will chew over with delight.

The second reason drawing any conclusions or predictions is premature is that it's too early for the public, as well. While people who constantly keep abreast of every tiny shred of political news (and I do include myself in that group) are already fully aware of the scandal details, the general public simply doesn't pay that close attention to politics. The number of people who get their news from late night comics is astounding, and has to be factored in. No matter what the political scandal, it takes time to seep in (or percolate up, take your pick) to the public's consciousness. Any poll takes a few days to conduct, and more time to compile, so CNN was asking the public pretty early on in the scandal cycle to begin with. Give it another week, and the numbers may shift dramatically, as more and more people become informed (in whatever way) about the details of what's going on.

The third reason it's too early to declare a trend is that this is only one poll. It may be what pollsters call an "outlier" -- a random skewing of the responses that winds up being mistaken about the direction of the public's opinion. This isn't to knock CNN or their polling -- outliers can happen to any polling organization, and it's why smart poll-watchers only believe a valid trend exists after multiple polls begin to show the same picture.

Even with all of these caveats, if the CNN poll does turn out to be indicative of the public's true feelings, it is pretty remarkable. Which leads to the Reagan comparison. Ronald Reagan (at least, up until the Iran-Contra scandal) was the first to be called a "Teflon president" because no matter what scandals popped up on his watch, he appeared to float above them all. Nothing stuck, hence the Teflon label. Barack Obama has long admired the transformational nature of Reagan's presidency (which has often been mischaracterized as Obama supporting or approving of Reagan's actual agenda, which is a completely different thing and not true). But the comparison in the two men's political skills seems to becoming more and more apt. Scandal after scandal (or, at least, what his opponents label "scandal," at any rate) is thrown at Obama, and not much of it gains any traction with the public, outside of people who already don't approve of Obama and never will.

Take a look at a comparison chart of job approval numbers for Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan (and please note, this is a chart of monthly averages which doesn't include any Obama numbers for this month, yet):

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

The blue and brown lines show Ronald Reagan's approval and disapproval. The green and red lines show Obama's. Reagan, by this point in his term (and excluding the first year's "honeymoon period"), had experienced higher highs and lower lows than Obama has. Reagan spent a whole 10 months with a lower job approval rating than the lowest number Obama has ever charted, and Reagan dipped well below 40 percent in his worst month. By comparison, Obama (also excluding the initial honeymoon) has kept his approval rating almost exclusively between 45 and 55 percent. That's amazingly stable. Obama did spend four months below 45 percent and hit a low of 43.4 percent in the middle of the debt ceiling budget fight in 2011. But other than that, his numbers don't change all that much, no matter what story is breaking. Even the death of Osama bin Laden didn't push Obama much above 50 percent approval, and if you remove that data point and his second post-election "honeymoon," his approval has stayed within the 45-50 percent range for over three years. That's a much tighter range than even Mr. Teflon himself, Ronald Reagan, could manage.

During this period, the Republicans have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at him. They have made it their party's highest priority to tear down Obama, and they have stunningly failed to convince the public to change their mind about the man all that much. Perhaps this is a big part of the problem. Perhaps crying "Kenyan!" too often has discredited their alarms, to put this another way. The populace hears that Obama is a socialist or hates America or is trying to destroy this or that aspect of American life -- and they collectively yawn, because they are considering the source. Republican scandal overreach may be coming home to roost, to mix the metaphors a bit.

Perhaps the CNN poll will indeed prove to be an outlier. Perhaps Obama's numbers aren't actually going up even after the trifecta of scandals last week. It is really too early to identify that trend, and we'll have to wait a week or so to see some other polls to figure out what's really going on out there. But I would be willing to bet that even if Obama's numbers do go down, they won't go down all that much. It seems that roughly 45 percent of the public will approve of Obama no matter what the other side throws at him, and roughly 45 percent of the public will never approve of the job Obama's doing (even killing bin Laden didn't convince them, remember) no matter what happens. The 10 percent in the middle will fluctuate by a few points, but on the whole, remain within a tight range.

I don't know what else to call that but Teflon.


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