Three months ago, NBC and the Wall Street Journal released a poll that put President Obama’s approval rating at 41 percent, a low for his presidency in this particular survey. His approval on foreign policy was also at 41 percent, as was his approval on economic matters. It wasn’t a great poll for Obama, and the analysis made that clear. “President Barack Obama and his Democratic Party are facing difficult political headwinds less than eight months before November's midterm elections,” was the measured take of NBC’s Mark Murray.
Yesterday, NBC and the Wall Street Journal released another poll. It put Obama’s approval rating at 41 percent. His handling of foreign policy issues dipped to 37 percent, and his handling of the economy held at 41 percent. Another bad poll for Obama, slightly worse than the March poll. What was the reaction? “This poll is a disaster for the president,” said MSNBC’s Chuck Todd on "Morning Joe." “Essentially the public is saying, ‘your presidency is over,’” he added, referring to the finding that 54 percent feel Obama is not able to lead the country.
National Journal’s Ron Fournier argued that Obama’s approval ratings show he’s “getting dangerously close to failed presidency territory,” and offered this curious assessment of the Obama legacy:
OK … let’s maybe take a deep breath or two. No, the Obama presidency is not over. Obama’s approval ratings have been bouncing around in the low- to mid-40s for basically the entire year, so it’s not clear why this poll is any more of a “disaster” than the six months of polling that preceded it. Obama doesn’t have to worry about reelection, so the real concern over his low popularity is whether it will drag down Democrats in November. The same poll found that the public would, by a slight margin, prefer that Democrats control Congress following the midterms.
As for questions of legacy and “failed” presidencies, it’s tempting to confuse popularity with effectiveness. George Bush would love to have left office with an approval rating like Obama’s, but he launched two terrible wars and presided over the near total collapse of the economy. His low popularity was a symptom of the terrible things he did, but the failed policies ultimately resulted in the failed presidency.
Obama’s ledger is actually looking far better than a lot of observers give him credit for. Healthcare reform, preventing economic disaster, sweeping regulations on carbon emissions – it’s a substantial list. “If the point of being president is to do things with lasting effect,” Paul Krugman wrote recently, “Obama has delivered.”
And there are still more areas in which he can have an impact. The president’s new executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation is the latest significant piece of Obama’s increasingly ambitious gay rights agenda. After spending his early political years triangulating and dithering on gay rights, Obama “has become the president who has done more for gay people than any of his predecessors,” per the National Journal.
On immigration, Obama’s move to halt deportations on children brought illegally to the country was a substantial achievement, and he’s expected to take further action this summer after the Republicans in Congress allow comprehensive immigration reform to die.
It’s easy to forget (or overlook) the big picture when you’re focused on day-to-day twitching within the margins of error. Presidencies are killed by bad policies, not bad polls.