There's been a noticeable uptick in President Obama's approval ratings this month, which has gotten the media talking about a shift in momentum from the Republicans back to the Democrats. Maybe that's the case. But this poll question from CNN is worth bearing in mind:
[img nocaption float="center" width="640" height="222" render="<%photoRenderType%>"]13086[/img]
Unfortunately, CNN did not ask this question in its December poll, so we can't determine whether there's a trend. Regardless, the fact that a plurality of Americans think his first two years were "a failure" should put his bump in the polls in context.
I don't think this bump should come as a huge surprise to anybody. After all, the last few months have generally been lacking the kind of divisive political combat we have seen since virtually the start of the Obama administration. Combine that with good legislative achievements and a well-received speech in Tucson, and you get a nice boost in the polls. But we shouldn't make too much of it. After all, the successes in the lame duck session were leftover items from the 111th Congress rather than the first in a series of broadly popular bills to pass. As for the Tucson speech, it was good -- but it spoke to feelings that 99.99 percent of Americans share about senseless murder. It's rare that public attention focuses so heavily on something about which Americans broadly and deeply agree.
So, here is how Obama's job approval numbers should be viewed. There's a "media context" that induces bumps such as these. The president is getting good press nowadays, so his numbers have gone up; during the campaign, with the Republican message machine running at full speed, his numbers went down as he got bad press. Next, there's a "structural context," which sets the broad parameters of his approval rating. This revolves around the big issues -- jobs, the deficit, the price of gas, the health care bill, etc. What we have seen in the last few weeks is that the media context has improved significantly for the president, but the structural context really hasn't changed much at all. That's where we get back to that question about whether the president's term so far should be classified as a "failure." His poor showing on that number indicates that he still faces serious structural problems.
And, in a year, if there is still a lot of slack in the job market, if gas prices are on the rise, if the deficit is still a concern, and if people are still worried about the health care law, we'll likely see his numbers go down when the Republicans settle on a presidential nominee. Something similar happened to George W. Bush in 2004, whose net job approval rating declined in the early months of that year. What happened to the 43rd president at the time was that the media context changed -- as of early March, there was a presumptive Democratic nominee running around the country, with the press following closely behind him, criticizing the president every day.
What conservatives need to bear in mind is that part of the structural context is the public's high regard for Obama as a person. Put simply, America likes the president and wants him to succeed. The fact that he has swung a net of 7-10 points in the public opinion polls based on such minor developments is a strong indication of that. And in 2012, President Obama is going to get the benefit of the doubt from the American people, so there has to be no doubt that the GOP candidate is a strong and able alternative. If the Republican nominee is not a top-notch candidate who can make a compelling case as to why he or she is the superior choice, the nation will stick with Obama.