Even after 100 days, Obama's still popular

Some conservatives see a president with a historically low approval rate, but for now Americans largely think the new administration's doing well.

Published April 29, 2009 9:00PM (EDT)

Let's face it -- the 100 day mark might have meant something in FDR's administration, but ever since then, it hasn't been all that significant. It is, as David Axelrod, one of President Obama's senior advisors, recently said, the "journalistic equivalent of a Hallmark holiday." But there's a reason Hallmark keeps coming up with new excuses to buy cards: People like them, and they fall for it.

And because there's now a long history of the country focusing on this 100 day benchmark, it's actually not a bad time to step back and take a look at how Obama is faring in the court of public opinion as compared with his predecessors.

For the most part, unsurprisingly, the president remains almost as popular as ever. He has, of course, experienced something of a dip in his ratings, and the number of people who say they disapprove of the job he's doing has risen substantially. But that's to be expected; presidents generally come in to office with an artificially low disapproval rating, because, well, they haven't yet done anything for people to disapprove of. As it stands now, Real Clear Politics' average of the president's approval rating, as measured by various polling outfits, stands at 61.6 percent approval and 30.9 percent disapproval.

That's pretty good -- and his numbers are generally like that, though he's not quite setting the world on fire. According to Gallup, which has been tracking these things for some time now, "Obama's 63% first-quarter average matches the historical average of 63% for elected presidents' first quarters since 1953." That said, though, the pollster also says that number "is the fourth highest for a newly elected president since that time, and the highest since Jimmy Carter's 69% in 1977."

Obama's numbers could be higher, were it not for the historic amount of polarization in them. The difference between the way Democrats and Republicans view him is higher than ever, and that's due in no small part to how conservative those remaining self-identified Republicans have become, and how negatively they see the president.

In fact, some are still maintaining that he's actually very unpopular. In an editorial on Tuesday, the Washington Times claimed, "Obama is the second-least-popular president in 40 years," explaining that he sunk to that level because "he is more partisan and divisive than his predecessors -- including Richard Nixon." Several bloggers on the right have since picked up the Times' ball and run with it, including Red State's Brian Faughnan, who wrote, "The Left in this country does not recognize that the Tea Party movement, the surprising strength of fundraising for GOP campaign committees and the Republican polling advantages in off-year races, all reflect dissatisfaction with Barack Obama’s agenda."

The problem, though, is that the Times was comparing apples and oranges. They took a Gallup poll that asked respondents how they rated the president's performance, combined those who said "excellent" and "good" and called it an approval rating, then compared it to actual approval ratings. And if they had paid more attention to those numbers, they would have seen what Gallup actually concluded.

The Times' other point of confusion is potentially illuminating, though. They say Obama's less popular than Nixon as if it were the public opinion of him at the beginning of his administration and not at the end that really mattered, as if people knew about Watergate in advance. That's wrong, of course, but it also shows somethign particularly important when considering these kinds of polls: As Yogi Berra once said, it ain't over 'til it's over.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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