The Obama Polling Disconnect

The American public is not known for having logically consistent political opinions, but the polls reported on November 10th by Rasmussen Reports may leave observers of the political scene wondering what’s going on. According to Rasmussen’s presidential approval rating poll of November 10th, 48% of “likely voters” approved of the job Barack Obama is doing as president, while 51% disapproved. On the same day, however, Rasmussen Reports published results of a poll conducted November 1st-5th showing that only 27% of “likely voters” opined that America was headed in the right direction, while 66% believed the country was on the wrong track.

These polls are not anomalies.

Recent polls by Rasmussen Reports show both that approval of Obama as president norms roughly 50%, while about a quarter of “likely voters” have believed America is going in the right direction. (Every poll has sampling error, of course, but most of these percentages won’t vary by more than plus-or-minus 3-5 percentage points if every adult American were interviewed.)

Lest one think these figures are unique to Rasmussen, polls taken by other organizations dovetail with those above. The Gallup Organization, for example, reported that Obama’s approval ratings for November 1st-3rd, 2015 were 49% approved vs. 47% disapproved. Just a few days earlier (10/25-29/15), a poll conducted for NBC News/The Wall Street Journal found that 27% of the public opined that the U.S. was headed in the right direction, while 64% believed it was on the wrong track. 

If anyone is inclined to dismiss these data on the basis that polls tapping presidential approval/disapproval come from slightly different dates than those plumbing opinions about the country’s direction, a McClatchy-Marist poll (10/29-11/4/15) has data on assessments of Obama’s job performance and opinions about the country’s direction. In this poll, Obama’s job approval-disapproval split is 48% vs. 48%. The same poll, however, shows that 60% of the public think the country is going in the wrong direction, while 35% opine that it’s on the right track.

There continues to be, in short, a gap between opinions about Obama’s job performance and feelings about the country’s direction.

This essay seeks to determine why nearly half of American adults frequently tell a pollster they approve of the job Obama is doing as president, but only about a quarter opine that the nation is headed in the right direction.

The best explanation for this is the “Limbaugh Theorem,” which asserts that Obama has the ability to be seen as opposing what’s going on, even if he’s the cause. People don’t seem to connect him with events in America.

Students of American public opinion once thought that, at least since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, perceptions of a chief executive’s performance influenced how people felt about the country’s general condition. Rightly or wrongly, large portions of the public looked favorably on how FDR was doing as POTUS, and believed that his efforts brought the country out of the Great Depression. Once “Dr. New Deal” was superseded by “Dr. Win-the-War,” and the U.S. emerged victorious in World War II, the connection between the public’s perception of presidential performance and feelings about the country’s condition was strengthened.

Additional illustration of the general point comes from George W. Bush’s presidency. A few weeks after 9/11, a Gallup poll found that 87% of those interviewed approved of Bush’s job as president, and 11% disapproved. At roughly the same time, 72% of the public said the country was headed in the right direction, and only 11% believed the U.S. was on the wrong track. Just before Obama was elected in 2008, however, Bush’s approval rating had fallen to 35%, while 62% of the public disapproved of his job. By that point, only 16% of the public opined that the U.S. was going in the right direction, while 67% felt the country was on the wrong track.

In other words, outside a few -- probably anomalous -- instances, polls from FDR to Bush #43 showed a nexus between a president’s approval rating and public opinion about the country’s direction.

It is mistaken to attribute sour views of America’s direction solely to assessments of a president’s job performance. People have jaundiced views of politicians in general, and their honesty in particular, and that explains why outsiders like Donald Trump and Ben Carson have been polling well among Republicans, and why Americans have dim perceptions of how their country is faring. 

Nevertheless, Americans have had ambivalent feelings about politicians for many years, and, at least during the first two or three decades after World War II, those mixed feelings did not play out in negativity about the country’s present and future condition.

Moreover, polls from many organizations show public approval of Congress is abysmal, and that probably influences negative opinions about the country’s direction. A Gallup poll of November 4th-8th, 2015, for example, found that only 11% of the public approved of the job Congress is doing, while 86% disapproved. 

Still, Congress is far less salient to the public than the Chief Executive, so the relationship between opinions of Obama’s job performance and views of the country’s direction merit exploration.

Five factors are largely responsible for Obama’s continuing popularity: (1) most Americans’ almost knee-jerk refusal to believe the POTUS dislikes the country; (2) race (the latest Marist poll shows that 91% of blacks approve of Obama’s job performance); (3) partisanship (the same Marist poll finds 85% of Democrat identifiers hold him in high regard); (4) a biased mainstream media which has a “slobbering love affair” with him; and (5) Americans’ chronic political apathy, which these days redounds to Obama’s favor.

A different dynamic affects Americans’ opinions about their country’s direction. When pollsters plumb opinions about America’s direction, they are tapping a cluster of related beliefs -- such as trust and confidence in the central government, feelings about politicians, perceptions of how people’s lives and those of their progeny are going, etc. -- all of which fall under the topic of political alienation vs. allegiance.

Many factors shape political alienation; most of them relate to a nation’s politics. At one time, assessments of how well a president -- the pre-eminent political figure in America since at least the days of Teddy Roosevelt -- was handling the job was one component of political alienation/allegiance.

But evidently, not for Barack Obama. Regardless of what one believes about what he’s doing as president, one has to acknowledge that some of the feelings about Obama stem from factors outside of the political arena.

Some of those factors, such as race, seem impervious to events. Large percentages of blacks will approve of him come heck or high water.

The Limbaugh Theorem, however, explains the main dynamic related to Obama’s continuing popularity.

Therefore, if Obama’s opponents are going to have any success, they must find some way to cope with the Limbaugh Theorem. Seek to connect visibly Obama to political events, most of which are deleterious to America as the framers envisioned the country.

Obama’s sorry reaction to terrorism in Paris and his dogged determination to settle Syrian “refugees” in America are excellent opportunities to begin.