Good news for the president. After nearly two years of sliding downward, his job approval numbers have ticked up a little bit. The average of major media polls in December had him clocking in with a job approval of about 45 percent. As of early January, his numbers are up to about 49 percent. The two daily tracking polls have shown siilmilar movement. At the beginning of the month, Gallup had the president around 45 percent approval while today he is at 48 percent. Rasmussen has found similar movement. Taken together, it means this for his trend line:
What accounts for this shift? It's impossible to know for sure, but here's my theory. The 111th Congress was extremely divisive, and the political process over the last two years has basically separated the country into two groups; by Election Day, those opposed to the president outnumbered those in support by 2-4 points. Yet over the last two months, the over-heated rhetoric has noticeably cooled, the country has not really discussed the big issues that divide it, and in general there's just been a break in the partisan action. This has given the president an opportunity to elevate his image, and his success in that regard is showing up in the polls.
I don't really think any of the fundamentals have changed in the few months since the election, so I have my doubts that this uptick is fundamentally similar to Clinton's improvement when he battled the GOP on the budget. That fight re-framed the national conversation with Clinton on the popular side -- for the first time, really, since the start of his presidency. Similarly, I don't think this is like the rebound in Reagan's job approval numbers in 1983, as the economy was on the good side of the "V-shaped" recession of the early 80s.
In the long term, I think voters are generally going to evaluate President Obama on three big issues: jobs, the deficit, and health care. In that order. Nothing I have seen in the last few weeks suggests that the needle has moved substantially on any of these items -- and, in fact, looking at the AP/GfK poll's internals, you'll see that his approval on these items trails his overall approval. There might be up-ticks and down-ticks depending on the news climate, but I think that those three issues have set the basic parameters of opinions on the president, and they will continue to do so.
This is a good time to remind Republicans that 2012 is not going to be a cakewalk. It is extremely difficult to unseat incumbent presidents, if for no other reason than the fact that people want the president to succeed, giving him a structural advantage that the challenging party simply does not enjoy. Republicans will have to nominate a sharp candidate with broad appeal who inspires confidence that he or she will do a better job in the middle of the country. Otherwise, President Obama will surely win a second term.