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Optimism for Obama Should Come With Caution

For as poorly as President Obama’s Democrats performed on Nov. 2, you can find several assessments of his re-election chances that seem doggone optimistic.

The Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone, in a careful analysis, suggests that Mr. Obama won’t be easy to defeat. Karl Rove, meanwhile, recently made comments to Fox News about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s electoral future, which seemed to imply that he expected Mr. Obama would still be president in 2016.

There are a lot of things that casual attempts at political science tend to get wrong, but one thing that observers seem to understand relatively well is that a poor performance by the president’s party at his first midterm election hardly dooms him. That is no doubt because of the recent experience with Bill Clinton as well as Ronald Reagan, both of whom witnessed their parties lose badly at the midterms and both of whom eventually won re-election by wide margins. Mr. Obama’s Democrats lost a few more seats in Congress than Mr. Clinton’s Democrats did — and more than twice as many as Mr. Reagan’s Republicans. On the other hand, Mr. Obama’s approval ratings are slightly better than Mr. Clinton’s or Mr. Reagan’s were at a comparable point in time, being in the mid-to-high 40s rather than in the low 40s.

There may be some risk in over-learning these lessons, however: Mr. Clinton and Mr. Reagan, though they are two recent examples, are nevertheless just two examples, and they were both once-in-a-generation political talents.

Still, it’s worth reflecting on what, if anything, we might have learned about Mr. Obama’s re-election chances during the past couple of months — both based on what happened on Nov. 2 and what has happened since.

Has the public taken on a more favorable view of Mr. Obama since the Democrats’ defeat? The evidence here is mixed, but for the time being points toward “no.” Mr. Obama’s Gallup approval rating reached 49 percent late last week — the highest it had been since July — but other surveys show it about flat, and the overall trend shows little change.

On the other hand, Mr. Obama’s approval rating had already been “stuck” at about 45 or 46 percent several months ahead of the midterms and had not been declining; most of the damage to Mr. Obama and the Democrats had come in 2009. Given how hardened partisan attitudes have become, it may be that Mr. Obama’s approval ratings are liable to fluctuate within a relatively narrow range.

Perhaps the question should be, then, whether Mr. Obama would win re-election if an election were held tomorrow. His approval ratings right now are quite similar to where George W. Bush’s were at the end of 2004. Mr. Bush won re-election, albeit very narrowly and against a relatively weak Democratic nominee.

Then again, the set of prospective Republican nominees is also perhaps rather weak. An average of polls conducted since Nov. 2 show Mr. Obama leading Mitt Romney by an average of 2 or 3 points, and Mike Huckabee by 3 or 4 points. Some people aren’t fond of looking at head-to-head matchups so far in advance of an election, and indeed, they are very rough gauges. With that said, both Mr. Romney and Mr. Huckabee are quite well known to the public, so these results might be more meaningful than they would be for a candidate who is not yet identifiable to the public at large, like a John Thune or a Tim Pawlenty.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama continues to enjoy a very large advantage — about 14 points, on average — over Sarah Palin. However likely Ms. Palin is to win the Republican nomination — and I can’t help but think that, if her numbers remain this poor, it will eventually become less likely — this essentially represents pure upside for Mr. Obama: what poker players would term a freeroll.

So if an election were held tomorrow, Mr. Obama would be a clear favorite against Ms. Palin, and probably about even money (although perhaps a very slight favorite) against a less divisive Republican nominee.

Fortunately — because I could really use the rest — an election won’t be held tomorrow. Do we have any inkling yet about whether Mr. Obama’s standing with the public is likely to improve or decline by 2012?

The state of the economy, undoubtedly, will be a huge part of the equation. The vast majority of economists expect it to continue to grow through 2012; the forecasts, in fact, have become slightly more optimistic over the past several weeks. The bad news for Mr. Obama is that the forecasts are more optimistic about G.D.P. growth than they are about unemployment: economists also expect the employment picture to improve, but at a sluggish pace, with the unemployment rate most likely being in the low 8 percentage point range at the time voters go to the polls in 2012. How voters might react to this situation — one in which the employment picture has improved, but is still rather poor in an absolute sense — is an open question, and one for which the historical evidence is of relatively little use.

How about the Democrats’ performance during the lame-duck session of Congress, when they were able to pass several important bills like the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, to the surprise of many observers?

One needs to be careful not to unintentionally damn Mr. Obama and the Democrats with faint praise; yes, they got a lot done, but all of the measures they passed were quite popular. Once the Republicans take over in the House, Mr. Obama will be engaged in some big showdowns with them over issues like the budget and his health care plan. Mr. Obama will be fighting from a defensive posture on health care, which remains unpopular with the public. How the public feels about the budget, where it has little faith in either party, is less clear.

Ultimately, however, Mr. Obama is more popular than the Republican Congress — an advantage that Bill Clinton did not have after 1994, nor Ronald Reagan after 1982. With the equally unpopular Democratic Congress largely being marginalized, that may work to his advantage. And — although I hesitate to endorse such a wishy-washy concept — the Democrats’ successes during the lame-duck session may provide him with some “momentum” headed into these battles, which will begin very early in the new Congress.

The political futures market Intrade puts Mr. Obama’s re-election chances at about 58 percent, which seems about as reasonable an assessment as any. Until we get a better sense for how the dynamics between Mr. Obama and the Republicans will play out — or in which direction the economy is headed — I would be skeptical of analyses that seem to express a significant amount of confidence on either side of that figure.

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