President Obama averaged a 63 percent approval rating in his first quarter in office, according to a new Gallup survey. That matches the historical average for elected presidents’ first quarters since President Eisenhower’s first term. More encouraging for Obama is that it is the fourth highest approval rating for a newly elected president since 1953 — and the highest since Jimmy Carter’s 69 percent in 1977. President Clinton’s 55 percent first-quarter average is the lowest for a recent president — and, according to Gallup, his approval rating sank to 44 percent in his second quarter in office. It’s worth noting, I suppose, that Carter lost his re-election bid in a landslide to Ronald Reagan — and Clinton won his re-election bid by an easy margin over Bob Dole.
As for the implications, Gallup puts it this way:
President Obama is off to a solid start as president, as far as his job approval ratings are concerned… Perhaps the biggest legislative accomplishment of his first quarter has been the passage of the economic stimulus bill. In the second quarter, Congress will likely begin work in earnest on his proposed budget. How that process plays out, whether the economy shows definite signs of improvement, and how well Obama deals with ongoing international challenges, will determine whether his ratings stay strong or begin to show decline.
That is certainly a fair (and obvious) judgment to make. On economic matters in particular, Obama has thrown his hat over the wall. We’ll see how it all plays out.
As for now, President Obama’s support among Democrats is very high and his support among independents is strong. That is certainly encouraging news for the Administration. Obama faces potential danger if the significant leakage of support he has experienced among Republicans — 16 points in a dozen weeks, according to Gallup — begins to bleed over into his support among independents. (According to the Pew Research Center, there is a 61-point gap in opinion between Democrats and Republicans about Obama’s job performance, leading researchers to conclude, “Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades.”) So long as Obama retains the support of independents, he can deal easily enough with his low standing among Republicans. But if the sharp drop in support by Republicans is a foreshadowing of what might happen, to a more limited degree, with independents, that is an altogether different story. In addition, Obama’s personal rating is a good deal higher than the support for some of his key policies. At some point, that gap usually closes.
In this context, it’s probably worth noting the Rasmussen survey Jen wrote about yesterday, indicating that voters trust the Democratic Party over Republicans on the top issue of the economy by just a three-point margin this month (45 percent to 42 percent) — the closest the two parties have been on the issue since the first week of last September; Republicans now hold an eight-point lead on national security; and on taxes, voters trust Republicans more by a six point margin (45 percent to 39 percent). Republicans have also pulled within one point of Democrats last week in the Generic Congressional Ballot.
In sum: Obama seems to be doing a good deal better than his party. The first three months of his presidency is a reminder that Obama remains a very formidable political figure, in possession of some extraordinary political skills. The question is whether his policies are as wise as his political talents are obvious.