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An “Obama Unbound” effect – or Viva Obama?

January 2nd, 2015, 1:13pm by Sam Wang

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…

Tags: 2014 Election · President

23 Comments so far ↓

  • Jewish Steel

    “Those defeats would then cast a shadow on Obama’s actions and lead to pressure to reverse them.”

    Exactly. It’s almost like he’s knows what he’s doing.

  • SFBay

    The cake was pretty much baked months before this election. Democratic voters don’t vote in mid-term elections. Nothing Obama said or didn’t say would have made much difference.

    I think his actions are much more effective coming now as they have.

  • Scott Supak (@ssupak)

    Cross tabs from Gallup:

    From Nov 1-20 to Nov 21-Dec 8 while black approval was down 3, and Hispanic approval was +12.

  • Craig W. Barber

    This is an interesting change in the numbers, and not what (commentators) expected!

    Question: Correlation / causation? (Coincidence??)

    Even more interesting, though probably a soft-science question: can it last?
    If Obama’s numbers stayed this healthy or better for the year, it would have a dramatic effect on the legislative debate heading into 2016.

    • bks

      Science fiction question: If Obama had started the immigration push and announced the end to the Cuba embargo, would it have helped in the election? –bks

  • Amitabh Lath

    Also consider: economy growing at absurdly high levels (for a developed country), unemployment down nearly to pre-recession levels, gasoline at $2/gallon, Russia sanctions and low crude prices delivering a whammy to Putin and making Obama look like a chess player extraordinaire (also Iran, Venezuela, and bunch of red states that depend on oil sweating) .

  • Fred Smith

    The only numbers he was down on were Millenials. He’s always been down with wrinklie whites.

    His numbers hardly budged with blacks and minorities.

    So just the apathetic millenial crowd coming back in the fold as they read about more ‘stuff’ going on through social media.

    These are pretty standard presidential cycle numbers aren’t they? Don’t presidential numbers always go down after 6 years and then come back like they are now?

    • Raymond W


      You are right that there is a cycle. The political science literature shows that approval is high in the beginning of the first term and then it tends to decrease the longer a president is in office. It decreases even more in the second term mostly because the president is a known quantity, whether it comes back up depends upon the political climate of the country. Bill Clinton is an example of a president whose approval ratings were high when he left office (he is an exception to the rule). Most attributed that to the good economy at the time. George W. Bush’s ratings were low probably because of the recession and the Iraq War. Only time can tell whether this uptick for Obama is a lasting trend. If the economy continues to get stronger then we may see more of an increase but it could decrease if a scandal is revealed.

    • Matt McIrvin

      Looking at Gallup’s historical numbers, I don’t really see a general pattern like this. There’s not much data, since a two-term Presidential administration lasts a long time and there just haven’t been that many recent Presidents who served two full terms.

      Clinton’s popularity might have had a jump after the 1998 midterm, but it’d been improving ever since his reelection (even though the Lewinsky scandal was in full burn–it didn’t seem to affect his job-approval numbers until after he was impeached, oddly enough).

      Reagan actually was down because of Iran-contra around that time; I don’t see a bump after the Republican losses in the midterms. And GWB’s popularity was just going further and further down, with some noise in the numbers.

  • Joel W

    the most plausible explanation is gas prices. It’s like the average american getting an immediate 10% increase in disposable income.

    • NP

      I’m not sure this is right $10 maybe but is that 10 percent of average disposable income?

  • Mike Sylwester

    The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 might be a factor.

  • Numbers

    Let’s not get carried away- he’s still under 50% and the Obamacare price increases haven’t sunk their teeth in yet. Let’s talk then.

  • P G Vaidya


    any predictions about the Greek elections?

  • Joseph

    I see the hand of the Great Right Wing Propaganda Machine at work here, as in so many recent elections. For all the talk of a “liberal press”, the reality is that media is owned primarily by the wealthy. They have the biggest megaphone by far, and they know how to use it. In the case of the last election, it was used to cut the heart out of the left’s ability to “rally the troops”, great ground game notwithstanding. People were convinced that the Dems were going to lose, and so they did lose.

    Cut to the present: There’s a lot of “buyer’s remorse” now, with the reality of both Congressional Houses being under control of the Republicans. There remains one rallying point for the left, and that is the Presidency. Is it any wonder that that’s exactly what’s happening?

  • Mario

    You posted this on Jan 2, and show polling data to February! Your prescience is amazing! Can you look all the way to next November? :)

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