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One-Two-Three-Four: What is Bipartisanship Good For?

Over at, Mark Blumethal takes issue with my attempt to tie Obama’s declining (although still very strong) approval ratings to the debate over the stimulus package, and particularly my assertion that Obama’s attempt to frame the issue in bipartisan terms was not constructive. I’m not sure that Mark and I are actually disagreeing on all that much, but let’s try and break this one down:

Are Obama’s declining approval ratings in fact tied to the stimulus?

Mark’s argument is that the reason Obama’s approval ratings have declined is that we have moved out of the honeymoon period surrounding his inauguration, and the fawning press coverage that it inevitably entails. That is, some or all of the decline was inevitable as the inauguration afterglow wore off.

The critique I’d have of this is that the inauguration bounce typically tends to be somewhat long-lasting. Gallup, in fact, reports that “new presidents’ approval ratings typically increase in the first few months of their presidencies” (emphasis mine).

This may, of course, be because new presidents typically choose to enact safe and popular policies at the very beginnings of their term. Obama, however, did not have the luxury of easing into his term. On the contrary, the stimulus — one of the most controversial and complex pieces of legislation ever to come before the country — was at the top of his docket from Day One.

So in a literal sense, the answer to my question is probably “yes”. I don’t think Obama’s approval ratings would have declined to the same extent had the stimulus not been on the table. But really I’m not sure that Mark and I are disagreeing. Obama probably wasn’t going to maintain an approval rating in the 70s forever; the stimulus may merely have accelerated the inevitable.

The real question, I think, is the following:

What would Obama’s approval ratings look like right now if he had pursued a more combative, partisan approach to the stimulus? Would they be worse? Better? Or about the same?

This is probably unanswerable. But as Mark points out, most of the decline in Obama’s approval ratings has come from Republicans, among whom he has lost a net of about 24 approval points (approval rating less disapproval rating) in two weeks. This is in spite of the fact that by roughly a 2:1 margin, Republicans think that Obama is in fact working in a bipartisan fashion, according to the latest CBS News poll.

In other words, there are quite a lot of Republicans who believe that (i) Obama is in fact governing in a bipartisan manner but (ii) disapprove of his performance anyway. Republicans can appreciate Obama’s civility — but still disagree with every piece of his agenda.

Does Obama need the support of Republican voters to pass his agenda?

While Obama certainly needs the support of a couple of Republican senators to pass his agenda, he doesn’t necessarily need the support of Republican voters. If Obama maintains the support of about 95 percent of Democrats and two-thirds of independents, his approval rating would remain at about 60 percent even with no Republican support at all, and he’d be above 50 percent approval in 42 of the 50 states according to Gallup’s recent party ID figures. The key Republican moderates in the Senate, moreover, can’t afford to ignore their Obama-loving constituents. About 40 percent of Susan Collins’ support in her successful re-election bid in Maine, for instance, came from people who also voted for Obama.


Basically, I think Obama needn’t spend a great deal of time worrying about his approval ratings among Republicans, and particularly among conservative Republicans. In the first place, it is probably inevitable that he will lose their support — no matter how “bipartisan” his behavior. In the second, because there are so few Republican voters left, he doesn’t really require the support of very many of them to maintain an impressive electoral coalition.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Obama should poke needles in the Republicans’ eyes at every opportunity — and he certainly can’t afford to lose the support of substantial numbers of independents and conservative Democrats. Nor should he assume — as I think certain liberal blogs are making the mistake of assuming — that there has been some sort of paradigm shift in the American electorate. We know that most Americans are sick and tired of Republican ideas and are eager to pursue some different ones. But we don’t know whether this shift is permanent or temporary, nor how robust it will be in the face of the trials and tribulations that the new president will inevitably face.

But the value of maintaining the appearance of bipartisanship does not appear to be all that high if it gets in the way of persuasion. For a week or so there during the stimulus debate, we were getting a lot of the former from the White House, but not so much of the latter. Tonight’s press conference marked a return to the persuasive Obama. His approval ratings, I’m guessing, will improve as a result — and more importantly, so will his prospects for favorable legislative outcomes.

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