Since mid-December, President Obama’s net approve/disapprove numbers have shot up. This graph shows the median of the last 21 days of polling. The current level, a net disapproval of only 2%, reflects six pollsters (Gallup, Rasmussen, CNN, ARG, YouGov/Economist, and ABC/Post). These are his highest numbers since early 2013. What is going on?
First, a caveat. A jump of this size and suddenness is surprising. Reasons should be offered with care. For example, I still don’t have a good explanation for the dive in Obama’s numbers in June – and that was a drop of similar size. Still, this recent jump occurred with multiple pollsters, suggesting that it’s a real phenomenon and not some artifact of changing methods.
To identify possible causes, we should look to events prior to the jump. The obvious event is the President’s newfound liberation from the pressures of the election cycle. Since the November election, the President has done the opposite of what many people expected: he showed strong assertiveness to Congress (shortly after November 4), acted boldly on immigration (November 20), made frank public statements on race (December 17), and normalized relations with Cuba (December 17). Could it be that voters like a strong leader?
It could be asked whether, from an electoral standpoint, these actions would have been welcome before the election. However, that is a mixed bag. Consider an alternative scenario, in which Obama had acted like this earlier. That might have been worse for his policies since loss of the Senate was still likely, as well as retained GOP control of the House. Those defeats would then cast a shadow on Obama’s actions and lead to pressure to reverse them. In the current situation, the President has little reason to change course.
I’ll get out on a limb with a speculation: If this “real Obama” uptick lasts, it might demonstrate a benefit to Democrats if they act, with vigor, like Democrats. With a newly invigorated President and a Congress in full opposition, the coming year will be worth watching.
Postscript: The most plausible trigger seems to be normalization with Cuba, which was huge news and reminded people of the unique power of the Presidency. This is a time when crosstabs would be helpful. Is the uptick concentrated among Hispanics? Democrats? Independents? For now, I leave that to readers and other analysts…