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Why Obama Shouldn't Worry About His Lousy Poll Numbers

President Obama walks with the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday.
Evan Vucci
President Obama walks with the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday.

President Obama's poll numbers have hit just about the lowest point of his presidency.

They started sinking after the Obamacare website's miserable debut last month. Now, only around 40 percent of Americans think Obama is doing a good job. More than half disapprove of his performance. (A year ago, the numbers were the opposite.)

It seems obvious to say that a high approval rating helps a president, while a low approval rating hurts him. But here are five reasons Obama's numbers might not be as troublesome as they sound.

1. He Was Never Popular With Congress Anyway

A high approval rating can give a president's initiatives a boost in Congress. "The willingness of members of Congress to take risks," explains Republican strategist Kevin Madden, "is usually proportional to the president's popularity."

Key word: Usually.

Even when Obama's popularity neared its high point, the president had a hard time getting bills through Congress. Just after his re-election, with approval ratings above 50 percent, Obama pushed immigration and gun control policies that seemingly had a lot of public support. Neither one became law.

Obama expressed his fury at the gun bill's failure during an emotional event at the White House Rose Garden, saying, "There were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn't do this. It came down to politics."

In other words, Obama has governed like an unpopular president even when he was popular.

At least the guy is consistent, says Ann Selzer, president of the nonpartisan Selzer & Co. polling firm in Iowa. "He has problems when his poll numbers are high in terms of getting legislation passed, and problems when his poll numbers are low."

2. Bad Poll Numbers Are Relative

Sure, only around 40 percent of Americans think Obama is doing a good job. But Congress would love to have that kind of approval rating. They're looking at single digits — and Republicans in Congress are doing even worse.

That makes some Democrats optimistic about their party's chances in 2014, even though the party of the president typically loses seats in a midterm.

"Independent voters more than anybody are really fed up with the Republicans," says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "For the first time in I think modern history, you have polls out there showing that almost 65 percent of voters want to get rid of their member of Congress. That has never been the case," she says.

She's referring to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from last month showing widespread damage to the GOP from the government shutdown.

Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker says disapproval of Congress casts Obama's position in a different light.

"Usually you have a situation in which the president is up and Congress is down, or the president is down and Congress is up," says Baker. "People liken it to a seesaw. But, in a sense, what we have now is a kind of rubber seesaw in which both sides are down."

Says pollster Selzer: "In a relative world where people are feeling that Washington's not moving, getting things done, or passing legislation, there's a sense that Obama is actually really surviving with the rosiest scenario."

3. There's Not Much Purple On The Congressional Map

In the midterm elections, Obama's approval rating can only really tilt the outcome in purple, or highly competitive, congressional districts. And there are fewer of those than ever before. Redistricting has wiped out swing districts in favor of safe zones for Republicans and Democrats.

"Majorities are built in Congress based on a much smaller universe of swing districts," says Republican Madden. "But in those swing districts, it's the president's popularity that usually makes the difference between whether a Democrat can win or a Democrat will lose."

Political scientist Baker says winning the 17 seats necessary to regain control of the House from Republicans "has always been an uphill prospect for the Democrats," no matter what the president's approval rating might be.

Still, this week's gubernatorial election in Virginia showed that Obama could be a drag on Democratic candidates in purple areas. Terry McAuliffe was forecast to carry the state by double digits. Instead, he won by a much smaller margin.

4. It's A Pretty Narrow Swing

Although Obama is at a low point now, his approval rating hasn't really varied all that much. After his initial election spike in 2008, his favorability numbers have settled into a band between the low 50s to around 40 percent. Not great, but not really terrible either — especially compared with his predecessor.

President George W. Bush had a high of 90 percent approval just after the 9/11 attacks, and a low of 25 percent late in his second term.

5. Obama's Done Running For Office

Perhaps the biggest reason presidents chase high approval ratings is to win re-election. As Obama often tells audiences with evident relief, that's not something he ever has to worry about again.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.