How Much Longer Can Obama Defy Political Gravity?

Jul 18, 2011 7:06am

ANALYSIS By AMY WALTER (@amyewalter):  Although President Obama’s job approval rating of 48 percent (according to Pollster.com average) isn’t exactly stellar, it is remarkably high given the level of economic pessimism and despair among American electorate.
 
The economy is the most important issue for most Americans, yet few Americans feel very good about it and most don’t approve of the way President Obama’s dealing with it. 
 
The most recent Quinnipiac poll found that just 38 percent of Americans approved of the job the president was doing on the economy and just 27 percent were “satisfied” with the direction of the country. Polling done by ABC News/Washington Post and CBS/New York Times in June found similar results on both counts.
 
Even so, President Obama’s job approval in the Quinnipiac Poll was 47 percent, a full nine points higher than the 38 percent who thought he was doing a good job on the economy. In the ABC /Washington Post poll, his overall approval rating was seven points higher than his approval rating on the economy. In the CBS/New York Times poll, the gap between his overall approval rating and his handling of the economy was 8 points.
 
Obama’s job approval ratings defy political gravity. The only question now, is if they can do so for much longer.

Psychologists talk about “cognitive dissonance,” the tension that people feel when their thoughts are inconsistent with one another.  In this case, it’s feeling as if the president is doing a pretty lousy job on the economy, but still giving him decent (though not glowing) marks when it comes to his overall presidency.
 
At some point, psychologists will tell you, relief from the tension comes only when you try to restore consistency.
 
In this case, it means that either voters need to start feeling better about Obama’s handling of the economy or they will start to feel worse about his overall ability to handle of his job. 
 
The greatest example of this cognitive dissonance was President George H.W. Bush. Even as he was riding high in job approval ratings thanks to the U. S. success in the Gulf War, voters were showing signs of restiveness about his handling of the economy.
 
In July of 1991, according to ABC News/Washington Post polling, Bush’s approval rating was 70 percent, even as just 36 percent approved of the job he was doing on the economy and just 30 percent thought the country was headed in the right direction.
 
By June of 1992, the laws of political gravity and cognitive dissonance had taken their toll on Bush. At that point, only 23 percent of Americans approved of the job Bush was doing on the economy and his overall job approval rating was 35 percent.
 
The connection between economic approval and job approval was also evident during President Ronald Reagan’s tenure. When voters disapproved of his handling of the economy, Reagan’s approval ratings suffered. But, as the economy started to turn around in late 1983 and early 1984, Reagan’s approval ratings in both his handling of the economy and his overall approval rating started to rise as well. By September of 1984, according to ABC News/Washington Post polling, 54 percent of Americans gave him positive ratings on his handling of the economy and he had a 58 percent approval rating.
 
In the last 30 years only one president, George W. Bush, has been re-elected with an overall approval rating under 50 percent. It’s worth noting, however, that his approval rating of 48 percent was basically in line with his approval ratings on the issues that voters were most concerned about in 2004: terrorism, the economy and Iraq.
 
This isn’t to say that Obama’s overall approval rating is the only thing that will determine his re-election chances. Obviously, his Republican opponent and the political climate in 2012 are important too.
 
But, it’s fair to assume that the economy will reign as the most important issue for voters in 2012.
 
Voters don’t blame Obama for getting the U.S. economy into this mess, but they do want him to get us out of it. Today, they are still giving him the benefit of the doubt. Will they still feel that way next fall?

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