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President Obama’s Approval Numbers Are Rising: What Gives?

A Commentary by Gina Jannone

Approval ratings for President Obama in our daily presidential tracking poll have noticeably improved over the past month. And it’s not just our polling - Real Clear Politics’ polling average indicates a clear uptick in the president’s ratings over the past couple of months.

Our daily presidential approval index has generally been in the negative mid-to-high-teens for most of Obama’s presidency. The president’s ratings generally improve at the start of the year, but tend to dip to normal levels starting around February or March. Other exceptions include so-called “rallying effects” often tied to major national security events. Rasmussen Reports saw improvements in the president’s numbers following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

While we’re usually not in the business of offering definitive explanations as to what factors are driving polling numbers this way or that, it is worth mentioning some recent developments and trends that may be impacting voter approval of the president’s performance.

An oft-discussed trend in public opinion suggests this shift has less to do with Obama himself and more to do with the current phase of his presidency. Commentators point to a tendency for voters to appreciate - or at least be less critical of - lame-duck presidents for a variety of reasons. Daniel Gross points to a surge in popularity for President Bill Clinton even following the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Ronald Reagan following the Iran-Contra affair and a stock market crash. These shifts appear to be more psychological than anything, seemingly tied to feelings of impending political change or even a sense of nostalgia for the outgoing commander in chief.

This ties in directly with a second factor; that is, the campaign to elect Obama’s successor. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in this country who could have predicted the sheer bedlam that is the 2016 race, which has more or less rewritten the book on campaigns and elections in America as we know it. The election thus far has seen the organization of an angry coalition of voters - particularly those supporting Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders - who are fed up with politics as usual in Washington. While Obama, as president, is naturally part of the political establishment, it cannot be ignored that many voters - particularly Republicans - are frustrated most with their own party leadership. It is possible that the rage and uncertainty swirling around the 2016 race may be turning many voters’ attention away from the performance of the sitting president and muffling criticism of him.

Election 2016 might be rewriting the playbook in many ways, but one fact remains: “it’s the economy, stupid.” Americans ended 2015 on a fairly pessimistic note, financially speaking. However, oil prices have fallen rapidly to their lowest in years, with gas prices in many areas at or below $2 a gallon. Despite a myriad of problems in the labor market, the country continues to add jobs steadily. Put bluntly, economic growth is far from stellar, but there’s also little sense of alarm at the moment. Of course, the president has very little to do with momentary fluctuations in oil prices or labor statistics, but perceived improvement in economic areas usually helps his numbers.

Also of note is Obama’s recent policy toward Cuba, where he made the first presidential visit since Calvin Coolidge 88 years ago. Most voters now support Obama’s effort to reestablish ties with the island nation, which includes lifting economic sanctions and opening up travel between the United States and Cuba.

It will be interesting to see whether President Obama’s improved approval ratings stick, particularly after concerns sink in following the latest terrorist attack in Belgium, likely at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS). Voters have criticized the president’s handling of ISIS in the past and question the government’s focus on terrorism at home.

Time will tell if such concerns will make a dent in approval ratings. For now, at least, things aren’t looking too bad for the president in his final year in office.

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Gina Jannone is the senior writer/editor of Rasmussen Reports.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. Comments about this content should be directed to the author at info@rasmussenreports.com.

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