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Posted at 1:19 PM ET, 01/ 4/2011

The Obama bump: A moment in time or real movement?

By Chris Cillizza

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The last month has been very good to President Obama.

Victories on his highest domestic and foreign policy priorities during the lame-duck session of Congress drew a bevy of "Comeback Kid" headlines and left the president in a far strong place politically than he had any reason to expect when the country headed off for the holidays.

Polling, which is always a laggin indicator, is now catching up with this Obama bump. Gallup's most recent three-day tracking survey showed Obama's job approval number at 50 percent while his disapproval number stood at 42 percent.

It's the first time since the late spring of last year that Obama has crested the 50 percent mark on the question in Gallup data; he spent much of 2010 in the mid 40s -- all the way until the November election when Democrats lost control of the House and lost ground in the Senate.

(For a more detailed explanation of Obama's approval ratings over the past year, make sure to check out Fix Aaron's piece on the subject late last year.)

But, are Obama's recent gains a temporary blip or a sign of a legitimate, long-term political comeback?

They may be both.

There's little question that a series of factors unique to this moment are helping Obama.

First and foremost, elections tends to be clarifying and cathartic events both for the American public and for the politicians involved.

The message sent to President Obama and his party in November was clear: stop what you are doing or, at the very least, do it differently -- and in a more bipartisan manner.

Obama, openly acknowledging the "shellacking" his party took at the ballot box, set about doing just that: emphasizing the importance and necessity of compromise on the tax cut deal and pivoting from that success to also score approval of the new START treaty.

While most voters would struggle to explain the details of the tax compromise and would be at a total loss to describe the implications of START, the broad perception left by the lame-duck was that Obama was getting things done -- and with Republican support to boot.

He looked big; he looked presidential. And, that's what electorally critical independents voters want from their chief executive. (Forty seven percent of independents approved of the job Obama was doing in the latest Gallup numbers while 80 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans felt the same.)

Second, from diets to political debates, Americans see each new year as something of a tabula rasa -- eight years of Latin finally paying off! -- and, as a result, are more open to the idea of re-assessing past opinions.

(Nearly six in ten people said they expected 2011 to be a better year than 2010 in a recent Gallup survey.)

Obama's planned series of staff changes will almost certainly play into that sentiment too. Today's departure of Ron Klain, Vice President Joe Biden 's chief of staff, and the speculation surrounding Bill Daley as the next White House chief of staff send a clear signal to the public: change is coming.

The truth, of course, is something short of that. David Plouffe, a longtime Obama adviser, will be joining the White House staff sometime very soon and, while senior adviser David Axelrod and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina are expected to leave Washington in the very near future, both will almost immediately begin working on the Obama re-election campaign.

Still, perception often matters more than reality in politics. And the perception is that Obama is cleaning house -- or, at the very least, tidying it up.

Third, Obama -- and the rest of the country -- have been absent from the political world for much of the last month. To the extent people have seen the president, it has been on vacation in Hawaii -- relaxing, eating and being a dad. Politics hasn't crept into that picture at all.

Remember that Obama's personal approval numbers far outstrip his job approval numbers; people like Obama even if they disagree with his policies. So, the more Obama the man rather than Obama the politician is in the spotlight, the better for his numbers.

Obviously, you can't be on vacation forever -- trust us, we've tried -- and Obama will soon to be forced back into the political mix. He acknowledged as much on the plane ride back to the nation's capitol today, saying: "I think that there's going to be politics. That's what happens in Washington."

What Obama has right now then is best understood as an opportunity -- an opening caused by the confluence of lame-duck wins, timing and good old human nature.

The focus of the first month -- or so -- of 2012 will be on the new Republican House majority. How will they act? What will the tea party demand -- if anything?

That spotlight is good news for President Obama, allowing him to ease back into the hurly burly and, potentially, ride the wave of the "Comeback Kid" story for a few weeks longer.

That honeymoon period will come to an end officially when Obama delivers his State of the Union address to Congress, a critical speech expected to come in the final week of this month.

What legislative priorities Obama chooses to push -- and whether he succeeds -- will set the course for his approval numbers in the year to come. And, of course, the relative health -- or perceived health -- of the economy will also play a major role in determining Obama's political fate.

It's clear that while Obama can't yet claim an extended upswing, the pieces are in place for him to make longer-term polling gains. Will it be an opportunity seized or missed?

By Chris Cillizza  | January 4, 2011; 1:19 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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