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Posted at 3:20 PM ET, 12/ 8/2010

Obama and the unpopularity question

By Aaron Blake

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Look at any of the post-mortems of the big Democratic losses in the 2010 election, and one conclusion is nearly universal: President Obama is unpopular.

He hurt his party, the logic goes, because the American public had fallen out of love with a man who flew into office with such high expectations.

But is Obama really all that unpopular? And did he actually hurt Democrats all that much? Even some Republicans say the answer to both questions is no.

"It's a stretch to call him unpopular," GOP pollster Glen Bolger said. "People still like Obama and want him to succeed. They just thought he was going about it the wrong way."

So, is Obama popular, unpopular or somewhere in between? Let's break it down.

If you want to define unpopular (and we do), the general definition is: viewed unfavorably by the public.

There is certainly a segment of the United States population that doesn't like the job Obama is doing, and for the past four or five months, that segment has outnumbered those who approve of the president.

But accounting for survey error, Obama is basically approved of and disapproved of by equal amounts of the country right now. That is, he's not terribly popular, but he's not terribly unpopular either -- not on par with, say, George W. Bush during the last few years of his presidency or Richard Nixon before he resigned.

Those are some of the more extreme examples, sure, but a historical comparison is valid here. So let's look at that.

Obama's job approval rating was measured at 46 percent before the November election, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. And Gallup has him at 47 percent in its most recent tracking poll.

Those numbers put him slightly above the average approval rating for two of the last 11 presidents -- Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter. It also puts him on-par with Gerald Ford, Bush and Nixon, whose average approvals were under 50 percent.

That means, of the last 12 presidents, Obama is currently in the lower-middle tier. He's not exceptionally popular, but if you're going to throw around the term "unpopular," it would also have to apply to half of the country's 12 most recent chief executives.

What's more, two men not included in that group -- Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton -- both spent significant portions of their tenures below the 47 percent mark as well. Like Obama, most of their time under the half-century mark occurred early in their first terms, when the economy was lagging much as it is now.

In all, only two presidents since Truman never dipped below 47 percent -- Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy -- and neither of them served in the last four decades.

Apart from historical comparisons, there are a plenty of present-day comparisons that can prove useful when measuring Obama's popularity.

Obama is much more popular than either outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Even incoming House Speaker John Boehner doesn't have great numbers (though his job approval hasn't been tested much).

Obama is much more popular than Congress as a whole, and only recently was he overtaken by George W. Bush, who like other presidents has seen his image recover in the years since he left the Oval Office.

What's more, even if half the country doesn't necessarily approve of the job Obama is doing, a majority still view him favorably on a personal level.

A post-election AP-GfK poll pegged Obama's favorable number at 55 percent, while an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll put it at 49. In both cases, his favorable rating was at least 10 points higher than his unfavorable rating.

Despite the prevailing rhetoric, even plenty of Republicans concede that the 2010 election wasn't so much about Obama and that he doesn't start off 2012 on horrible footing.

"Overall, there isn't a sense that people dislike him," GOP strategist Brian Donahue said. "They are simply feeling let down by him."

GOP pollster Tyler Harber said campaigns were actually advised not to use Obama as an issue.

"We routinely reminded our campaigns to not make the election about Obama, because voters still had a soft spot in their heart for the guy," Harber said.

Democratic pollster Fred Yang noted that pleasing only half the people doesn't make you unpopular and that Obama does well with almost all Democrats.

"I think the president is clearly polarizing, but I don't think he is unpopular," Yang said.

That's not to say, of course, that Obama didn't hurt Democrats this cycle.

The party under a new president has historically struggled in that president's first midterm year for a reason: People are voting on the new party in charge. Voters didn't necessarily like what they saw from Obama (the health care bill, the economic stimulus package, cap and trade), and they decided to give the other side a shot -- at least in the House.

What's more, most of the areas where Republicans took Democratic seats were districts where Obama lost in 2008 -- not inherently friendly territory for the party.

As Obama's approval rating dropped off nationwide, it really dropped off in these districts, which were often more conservative than the country as a whole and, correspondingly, saw Obama in a more negative light than the country writ large.

But even in those districts, GOP pollsters say, voters didn't cite Obama as the reason for their vote.

So is Obama unpopular? Not necessarily. Did he cost Democrats seats? Perhaps some.

By Aaron Blake  | December 8, 2010; 3:20 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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