On the Oil Spill, Obama’s Slippery Slope

Jun 15, 2010 9:34am

In covering the president’s address tonight it may be tempting to say the government’s response to the Gulf oil spill has damaged his approval ratings overall. There’s no evidence that this is so – but plenty that risks abound.

President Obama’s own response to the spill is not rated well; 49 percent of Americans in our latest ABC/Post poll disapprove. Ratings of the federal government’s performance more broadly are considerably more negative; BP’s, even more so.

But while that can’t help the president, neither has it hurt bottom-line measurements of his overall job approval rating to date. The table below lists Obama’s approval ratings from 10 individual polling organizations, comparing their nearest pre-spill numbers to their most recent. One is up four points; none of the others has moved significantly. The average change across these surveys is zero.

Obama job approval, pre- and post-spill
Latest     Pre-spill   Change
Gallup daily  6/13  48%   4/19  49%     -1
Fox RV        6/9   46    4/21* 46       0
ABC/Post      6/6   52    3/26  53      -1
CBS           5/24  47    4/12  50      -3
Quinn. RV     5/24  48    4/19  44      +4
CNN/ORC       5/23  51    4/11  51       0
AP-GfK        5/11  49    4/12  49       0
NBC/WSJ       5/10  50    3/14  48      +2
Ipsos/McCl.   5/9   52    4/5   51      +1
Pew           5/9   47    4/11  48      -1
Avg.  0
*Spill began 4/20

Fewer comparisons are available for the president’s personal favorability ratings, but they tell a similar story. In a USA Today/Gallup poll May 25, more than a month into the spill, 54 percent saw Obama favorably overall; for a more recent measure it was 57 percent in a Pew poll completed Sunday. Neither is worse than in a pre-spill USA Today/Gallup poll March 28, 52 percent. And in NBC data Obama’s pre-and post-spill favorability ratings are just 3 points apart.

His ratings specifically on handling the spill, while not positive, also have been stable lately: Fifty-three percent negative in a USA Today/Gallup poll completed Sunday, for instance, but likewise 53 percent in a poll they did May 25.

Still, Obama’s most negative rating, “very poor,” is up by 5 points in those two polls. And 71 percent in the more recent one said he had been “not tough enough” in dealing with the spill, a view that may help explain the harsher rhetoric he’s been delivering lately.

Negative views of the president’s response clearly do carry risks for him. Fifty-seven percent in our latest ABC/Post poll June 6 called him a “strong leader” – still a majority, but down from 65 percent in a Washington Post poll in March.

Comparisons to Hurricane Katrina are inevitable, and our polling has found ratings of the federal response to the oil spill (69 percent negative) worse than they were at the time of Katrina (62 percent negative). That said, Obama’s own rating for handling the spill (again 49 percent negative in our data) is nowhere near as bad as George W. Bush’s ultimately became for the Katrina response – 63 percent negative six months after the hurricane struck.

Given other events in 2005 – the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and the spike in gasoline prices after the hurricane – it’s tough to pin Bush’s troubles that year specifically on the Katrina response. He dipped to a then-career low immediately after the hurricane, then recovered before heading down again.

Still, crises like these present opportunities for presidents to exert leadership – and the attendant risk of failure. With both Bush’s fortunes and the current data in mind, Obama likely is less concerned about what the spill response has done to him now, as the challenge it poses for the future. His address should be taken as an effort to gain footing on what’s clearly a slippery slope.

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