Why So Many People Regard Obama Positively

After studying public opinion for many years, I think I have a fairly good understanding of what shapes the typical American’s political views.  There is, however, one topic that has me flummoxed:  why so many Americans still hold rosy opinions about Barack Obama as the president and as a person.

Pollingreport.com posted the latest polls by about a dozen organizations plumbing Americans’ recent opinions about Obama’s job performance.  Most major poll results showed approval of his job performance averaged 45-46%.  Disapproval averaged two or three percentage points higher.  A CNN/ORC poll conducted June 26-28, however, showed his job approval at 50% while 47% disapproved.  The Gallup poll’s daily tracking report for July 14, 2015 showed Obama’s job performance rating at 46% approval vs. 49% disapproval.   (Approval of Obama’s job performance will probably increase following the deal with Iran.) 

The same organizations’ recent polls showed positive perceptions of Obama as a person frequently exceed 50%.  (His reputation for honesty dipped when it was revealed that he lied to sell Obamacare, but has since recovered.)

What’s difficult to understand about this is that when the same organizations plumb opinions about topics -- such as the country’s direction, perceptions of economic conditions, views of U.S. influence abroad, etc. -- that correlate robustly with presidential job approval, the results are usually abysmal, and ought negatively to affect dispositions about Obama.  (When George W. Bush was president, for example, abysmal opinions on these issues drove his job approval ratings into the gutter.)

This essay attempts to comprehend why, despite his policy failures at home and abroad, scandals, and lies, many Americans continue to approve of Obama’s job performance and regard him favorably as a person.  At least five major factors seem to play a part:  (1) Americans’ views of the presidency; (2) Obama’s racial make-up; (3) his party affiliation; (4) the mainstream media’s (MSM’s) bias on his behalf; and (5) Americans’ tendency to accord very low priority to politics.

No one can fully appreciate opinions about Obama unless he/she understands Americans’ perceptions of the presidential office.  Given the topic’s importance, it is not surprising that a large body of research (by scholars, journalists, politicians, and lay-persons) exists detailing the public’s views of the presidency.  One could easily get lost in the minutiae these studies have produced.

An excellent assessment of public opinion about the presidency can be found in a slim volume by the late Thomas Langston, With Reverence and Contempt (1997).  Looking at public perceptions of the presidency from George Washington to Bill Clinton, Langston argued that the public conceptualizes every president as a democratic priest-king.  As a priest, the president is supposed to “make meaningful the lives of the people.”  As king, the president is expected to exercise power for “the public good.”  As a democratic office, the president is supposed to represent all the people, be one of the people.  Langston’s review of Americans’ perceptions of presidents suggests that a combination of “unrealistic expectations, false hopes, and willful misunderstandings” produces a “dysfunctional relationship” between ordinary Americans and their Chief Executive.  The implication of Langston’s book is that most people expect more of their president than he -- so far -- can accomplish, but they continue to hold him -- so far -- in high regard, and adamantly refuse to acknowledge that he -- so far -- can dislike the nation.  (On this, Rush Limbaugh is absolutely right.)

This complex relationship between the American people and the president has the potential to induce negative feelings about the Chief Executive.  But, usually it doesn’t.  Why?  As Langston wrote, “[t]he American public is excessively passive before its presidents.”  Most people are predisposed, in short, to give a president the benefit of the doubt.  That is one reason Obama’s public image tends to somewhat inflated. 

Race is likely another factor keeping views of Obama more positive than they might otherwise be.  As the first African American to be elected and re-elected president, Obama has enjoyed overwhelming backing from blacks.  As the Gallup Poll’s president Frank Newport reported last October, blacks’ approval of Obama’s job performance has averaged 40 percentage points higher than the rest of the public throughout his presidency.  The late October 2014 Gallup poll, for example, found more than 85% of blacks approved of Obama’s job, compared with 41% of the public as a whole.  (A more recent poll would also probably show a sizable racial gap in opinions about Obama’s job performance.)

Blacks comprise roughly 13% of America’s population.  Nevertheless, their overwhelming approval of Obama very likely keeps poll data on his job performance and personality higher than they otherwise would be.

Partisanship also influences views of Obama.   As Jeffrey Jones reports, Gallup’s latest poll shows that in the second quarter of 2015, Democrats have regained an edge over the GOP among the American public (46% vs. 41%). 

Partisanship plays an important role in views of a president’s job performance.  Republicans are typically a great deal more likely than Democrats to say they approve of a Republican president’s job performance, and vice versa when the POTUS is a Democrat.

Gallup polls tapping opinions about Obama’s job performance, for example, typically reveal that approximately 80% of Democrats say they approve of his job as president, compared with roughly 46% of Independents, and about 17% of Republicans.

Recall Jones’ report that Democrats now slightly out-number Republicans in the public.  All other things being equal, the more people who think of themselves as Democrats, the higher will be Obama’s approval ratings.

Partisanship and race probably influence the MSM’s “slobbering love affair” with Obama.  MSM denizens are overwhelmingly left-wing Democrats, which this site’s readers know very well.  Left-wing Democrats in the MSM likely accept the belief that racism motivates any criticism of Obama.  Since they are loath to express any sentiment that could be so construed, they sing his praises and refuse to report anything that could be considered critical of him.  (Expect the MSM to laud Obama’s deal with Iran.)

Given the MSM’s infatuation with Obama and the fact that many Americans still rely on the MSM for the news, is there any wonder that polls show public approval of his job performance, and especially that perceptions of him as a person, remain higher than they might otherwise be?

Other facets of public opinion probably keep Obama’s poll ratings higher than a large corpus of public opinion research would suggest.  First, most of the time, most Americans don’t care very much about or pay much attention to public affairs.  Personal matters -- such as family, work, play, entertainment, health, etc. -- are far more important to the average person than is politics.  Second, since Americans aren’t very interested in politics, they don’t know much about public affairs.

Political indifference and ignorance, coupled with Americans’ refusal to believe their country’s Chief Executive harbors ill will toward the nation -- which has already been noted -- seem to enhance many people’s responses when queried about a president’s job performance and personality.

The factors detailed above help me comprehend an otherwise vexing phenomenon.  The American Thinker’s readers undoubtedly will mention other factors shaping perceptions of Obama.  I remain open to suggestions.

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