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In Declining Approval Ratings, Lessons for Obama

Although the latest reports indicate that a compromise on a roughly $800 billion stimulus package is likely to pass the Senate this weekend, the debate has not been without consequence to Barack Obama’s approval ratings. Whereas Obama had been averaging approval ratings of about 70 percent in the immediate aftermath of his inauguration, his approval ratings have since declined by approximately 6 points, with his disapproval scores increasing by about the same margin:

Post-Inauguration Day Approval Ratings

Pollster Approve Disapprove
Gallup 68 12
Research 2000 77 20
Rasmussen 65 30
AVERAGE 70.0 20.7
Current Approval Ratings

Pollster Approve Disapprove
Gallup 63 21
Research 2000 69 26
Rasmussen 61 36
AVERAGE 64.3 27.7

Now, it could be that this decline is a result of something other than the stimulus debate: the Daschle debacle, for instance. But my impression is that those stories have had little resonance outside of the Beltway, whereas the public has been following the stimulus debate rather closely.

So what has Obama learned here? There have been three lessons, I think:

1. Republicans have nothing to lose. Public perceptions of Congressional Republicans are also significantly down from their already-low levels since the stimulus debate began. But, the Republicans will gladly torpedo their own brand if it means taking Obama down with them. They are dangerous to him, in the way that a gang of rabid velociraptors is dangerous to a T-Rex.

2. Obama has to do the heavy lifting himself. Support for the stimulus dwindled when the Congressional Demorcats, who are not much more popular than their Republican colleagues, were charged with the job of selling it. The more Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are the faces of the Democratic Party, the more Barack Obama’s approval ratings will come to resemble those of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

3. The benefits of “bipartisanship” are dubious. The public says they want bipartisanship, and a large majority of the public believes that Obama acted in a bipartisan fashion during the stimulus debate. And yet, his approval ratings fell significantly during this period.

There are, obviously, a lot of factors to keep in balance here, but more than anything else the public seems to be seeking strong leadership from Obama; they don’t want him to be deferential to either Congressional Democrats or Congressional Republicans.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.