The latest weekly Gallup poll has President Obama’s approval rating back down to 46%, after peaking at 50% near the end of January.
The steepest drop since January actually occurred among Democrats, whose approval fell from 84% to 79%. Independents lowered their approval by 4 points to 43%, while Republicans held fairly steady, dropping only 1 point from 15% to 14%.
Mulling over these numbers, Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake of the Washington Post note that Obama’s approval seems to hover around 45% most of the time. It bounced up a bit after the heavy news coverage of his “big wins” during the “historic” lame-duck session of Congress, and maybe earned a little altitude from the general spirit of goodwill that illuminates the holiday season. They doubt his return to more typical approval ratings indicates a steady downward trend.
I wonder about that. Reading the tea leaves from opinion polls is tricky, especially since major events can swiftly and dramatically change approval ratings. I’ll try my hand at fortune-telling by observing that Obama appears to have lost the benefit of the Absent President Effect, and that is a bad sign for his future.
The Absent President Effect occurs because Americans are generally disposed to think well of their President, or at least mute their harshest criticisms. The public has a deep reservoir of respect for the office. It’s not invulnerable by any means, and in fact once the halo fades away for some reason, it’s tough for a given President to get it back.
However, as long as the Oval Office halo is intact, the approval ratings of a President who stays away from the national stage will slowly rise. They won’t get too high, but they’ll float up out of the doldrums, as independents forget why they were mad at him. They hear that Gallup poll question as “What do you think of the President?” instead of “What do you think of Barack Obama?” Since “The President” is an important office supported by patriotic Americans, the approval number climbs out of the forties.
The dissolution of this effect suggests that independent voters (and, judging by the Gallup results, moderate Democrats) have grown so weary of Obama that they no longer give him the generic Presidential benefit of the doubt when he disappears. He’s been almost completely invisible for a couple of weeks, but independents and Democrats don’t seem inclined to believe he’s calmly working on addressing important issues in private. He was so over-exposed over the last couple of years that people could have been excused for “approving” of his absence from their TV screens for a while, but the benefits of that relief appear to have dissipated as well.
Much the same thing happened to George W. Bush toward the end of his second term. He excused himself from the national stage, and eventually independents and Republicans (especially conservatives) stopped assuming he was hard at work on the important duties of the chief executive.
It bodes ill for Obama that he’s lost the Absent President Effect so soon in his tenure. It suggests a substantial portion of the electorate, including a significant slice of Democrats, are no longer dazzled by his biography, or willing to allow him to sit “above the fray” as a detached Olympian presence.
The Washington Post’s Cillizza and Blake speculate that a strong uptick in the economy could turn Obama’s fortunes around. It’s interesting that some recent good news on unemployment, overplayed as usual by a supportive media, didn’t seem to help him much. The expiration date on his bottle of Blame Bush tonic looks to have passed as well. The heavily hyped State of the Union speech is a distant memory. The bills are coming due on the extravagant promises that got his approval rating this high are coming due. What’s he got to look forward to?