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Is Gulf Disaster Spilling into Obama’s Approval Ratings?

We haven’t written very much about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Needless to say, it’s a real tragedy for people in the Gulf Coast states, a region which was hit hard both by the hurricanes of 2005 and by the economic hurricane that has hit the country over the past couple of years. I hope that those of you with means will consider spending some time down there. Without meaning to trivialize the situation, it does bear considering whether the incident is having any impact on Barack Obama’s political fortunes.

The hard evidence is mixed. This is’s chart of Obama’s approval ratings since the oil spill occurred. You can arguably see a point or two’s worth of deterioration in his numbers:

Most of this is driven by the two pollsters, Gallup and Rasmussen, that track Presidential approval on an ongoing basis; the other national pollsters have been relatively dormant lately. Rasmussen has not really shown any deterioration in the President’s numbers — but then again, Rasmussen had them being relatively poor to begin with. Obama has had a rough spell in Gallup’s polling, on the other hand, which also printed a very poor number for Democrats in their generic ballot polling this week.

Although the trend is not very robust — it may just be statistical noise — the notion of some modest downward pressure on Obama’s numbers rings true to me. On the one hand, this is a real event, a really horrible event, that real people are noticing — and not the sort of ginned-up faux scandal that can dominate Washington’s coverage during slow periods in the political cycle. Although it’s dangerous to relate from personal experience, a lot of people in my social circle have certainly been thinking about the disaster in the Gulf, including what they perceive to be a lackluster response from the White House.

On the other hand, it’s not exactly clear what the critique is. The most widespread criticism of Obama is simply that he’s expanding government too much, too fast (in other words, that he’s too liberal). In the case of the oil spill, however, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that Obama was not quick enough to get the government involved, and was too deferential to BP. I don’t mean to oversimplify this — I recognize that there’s a perfectly coherent intellectual position which holds, for instance, that deficits are a huge problem, but also that the White House needed to intervene more forcefully in the Gulf. Nevertheless, the criticisms have been somewhat orthogonal to the usual ones that the Administration receives.

There are, of course, other strands of criticism too — like Maureen Dowd’s refrain that Obama is too aloof and dispassionate, and the argument (mostly from liberals) that contrary to perceptions, the White House is in fact too slack with major corporations. Those adhere into a more coherent anti-Obama narrative when it comes to the Gulf disaster. On the other hand, they are probably not things that people on Main Street are talking or thinking much about.

Mostly I simply think that the disaster is reinforcing people’s frustration — an emotion that has become very widespread within the country, and which crosses most demographic and political boundaries. If that remains the prevailing mood of the country in November, the risks to the incumbent President and his incumbent party are mostly to the downside.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.