The bounce in the polls for Barack Obama’s presidency is real. There have been some fun attempts at shredding it, like this regression at the aptly named blog Yes, But, However! These attempts are all futile. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, New York Times/CBS News poll, Washington Post/ABC News poll are not simultaneously wrong, and the polling average points unmistakably up. If you remove the laughable Zogby Internet poll—I think Mike Gravel is winning the 2012 primary in the universe where this is conducted—Obama’s at 49.5 percent, knocking on the door of majority support.
So there is a minor Obama recovery afoot. His adroit response to the shootings in Tucson definitely helped. The interesting questions are why it’s happening and whether it matters.
* Voters are pretty well satisfied with the thrashing they gave Obama two months ago. He had it coming, as far as they’re concerned; he’s got another chance to please or disappoint them. In the NBC News/WSJ poll that gives Obama a 53 percent approval rating, voters split 39/39 on whether Obama is facing just “short-term setbacks.” When voters took George W. Bush’s Republican majority away four years ago, 65 percent of them said he was facing long-term setbacks, that things were unlikely to get any better. They’d given up on the guy.
In contrast, by about a 2-1 margin in the NBC News/WSJ poll, voters think Obama will “strike the right balance” with the new Congress. By a smaller margin, they think that Congress will be “too inflexible” as it deals with him. Only 45 percent of voters think Obama is “very” or “somewhat” liberal, which matters, because “liberal” has been a political demerit roughly since George Lucas thought that remaking The Hidden Fortress with lasers might be a marketable idea.
Should we be surprised by this? No. This is what happens when Americans punish a charismatic liberal president and he acts suitably chastened. Bill Clinton’s Democrats were devastated in 1994, and he had a much less productive lame-duck session with which to win back liberal support. Yet a CNN/Time poll released on Jan. 8, 1995 gave Clinton a sizable bounce, from 41 percent job approval to 47 percent; disapproval fell from 49 percent to 44 percent.
* Conservatives, by winning the election, have peaked in popularity—for now. Look at the internals of the Washington Post/ABC News poll. Those pollsters have been asking about voters’ impressions of the Tea Party movement for a year. When they began, 35 percent of voters viewed the movement favorably, and 40 percent viewed it unfavorably. The numbers have moved back and forth a bit. Today, once again, 35 percent of voters like the Tea Party movement. It’s just that 52 percent of them don’t, and by a 10-point margin they think the movement has “crossed the line” in its rhetoric.
The Post/ABC poll contains plenty more reasons why Obama holds an advantage over the GOP. Republicans have pointed out that for the first time in a while, they are tied with the president when voters are asked who they trust to fix the health care system. That’s the only question that Republicans lead on, though. On Afghanistan, on terrorism, on taxes (thanks, probably, to that December deal), and on the mysterious indicator of helping out the middle class, Obama leads.
This week’s Fox News poll is—surprise!—gloomier for the Democrats. But its very first question demonstrates why Republicans don’t have much room to gain on the president right now. A plurality of voters, 45 percent, want the president and Congress to “focus on” the economy and jobs. Only 14 percent want to see a focus on health care, and that number is that high mostly because 19 percent of Democrats feel that way. Only 10 percent of independent and Republicans are focused on it. That’s why Republicans are careful to add the modifiers “job-killing” or (new tone!) “job-destroying” to the health-care bill—it’s an attempt to show their repeal effort is really about the economy. It’s an almost perfect mirror of the problem Democrats faced in 2009 and 2010, when they went to great lengths to explain that their focus on health care was not, not, not a distraction from unemployment.
That, of course, is Obama’s problem. That’s the reason not to start plotting this line into 2012.
* Voters think the economy is going to recover. The president has recovered in the polls before, and the recovery has always come when voters think they’re going to get jobs again. In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 40 percent of people polled said the economy would improve “during the next 12 months,” and 17 percent said it would get worse. But people were even more optimistic in September 2009. That month, 47 percent said the economy would improve, and 20 percent said it would get worse.
No news there: If the economy improves, voters will look more warmly on president Obama. If it doesn’t, Obama is going through his latest false dawn.
It gets worse. There’s not much coordination yet between Obama’s own approval numbers and the performance of Democratic candidates. Obama had positive approval numbers in November 2009, when Democrats lost the governors’ mansions in Virginia and New Jersey. He had positive approval numbers in January 2010, when Scott Brown blazed past the handshake-phobic Martha Coakley and won a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts. He had mildly positive approval numbers in the spring of 2010, after health care reform passed, and slipped into the 40s by the midterms, as the economy didn’t recover.
We’re not talking about 2012 yet, though. The unmistakable, grand, break-out-the-Cristal news in all of these polls is that Obama comfortably leads every potential Republican candidate for his job. He only leads them because for the third or fourth time, Americans want to think the economy’s about to turn a corner.