How ABC News debunked the Obama “honeymoon” myth

The Beltway press has been buzzing for days about President Obama's lagging job approval ratings, even though Obama's ratings remain high. In spite of that, the press has shifted the emphasis and announced that the real problem is that Obama's policies are not as popular as Obama the president.

Poor Jake Tapper.

The ABC News senior White House correspondent was scheduled to appear on Good Morning America on June 23 to discuss the latest results from the network's polling division. The Beltway press had been buzzing for days about President Obama's lagging job approval ratings. Actually, Obama's ratings remained high, in the upper 50s and even into the 60s. In spite of that, the press had shifted the emphasis and announced that the real problem was that Obama's policies were not as popular as Obama the president.

That particular polling phenomenon has actually been around for decades: Specific policies are almost always less popular than the actual president. But the press created a new standard for Obama and decided to play down his approval ratings and find a new way to judge the Democratic president. For the press, job approval numbers, which had been used for decades to judge a performance, suddenly were deemed to be irrelevant. For some reason, the yardstick by which the press has measured presidents for decades was seen as obsolete for Obama. (And forget about Obama's even higher personal favorability ratings; the press has completely flushed those down the memory hole.)

What matters now, the press declared, is how voters feel about specific issues. And using that new standard, the press pushed its preferred story line about how trouble was looming for Obama (news flash: Obama might become less popular!). It was the same story line the Republican Party was pushing: pay no attention to Obama's high approval ratings because political ruin awaits.

So there was Tapper, preparing for GMA last week, when the news division's own polling unit announced that the Democratic president's approval rating actually stood at a very impressive 65 percent. (The poll was conducted by ABC News in conjunction with The Washington Post.)

Just for context, since Tapper refused to provide any that morning: That 65 percent approval rating was quite robust for any modern first-term president five months into the job. Historic, even: Only one other first-term president in the past 40-plus years (George H.W. Bush) had posted better numbers at this juncture than Obama, according to Gallup. And by comparison, five months into his term in 2001, President Bush's approval rating had yo-yo'd up and down and had fallen to 55 percent in May.

So what was Tapper to do on GMA? Would he buck the Beltway's beloved narrative about Obama's supposed waning popularity and simply report the news of the ABC poll: a 65 percent job approval rating? Or would Tapper spin away and emphasize that trouble loomed for the Democrat in the White House?

You guessed it: Tapper spun hard and stuck with the Beltway's preferred “yes, but” story line: Yes, Obama is (very) popular, but people have some doubts about his policies. Tapper simply refused to allow Obama's nearly unprecedented job approval numbers to get in the way of the story he wanted to tell about Obama's “sinking numbers,” which, believe it or not, was part of the on-screen text that appeared during Tapper's report on GMA. ( “Make or Break? President Sees Sinking Numbers,” to be exact.) Yes, sinking numbers for a report on Obama's approval rating, which hovered at 65 percent, a mark his immediate predecessor could have only dreamed of five months into his first term. And, of course, an approval rating that nearly doubled Bush's when he limped out of office in January.

But as Media Matters' Jamison Foser recently noted, a White House approval rating in the mid-60s is suddenly a bad thing from the press' perspective.

For the record, Obama's job approval rating trend from ABC's poll this year has been 68 percent (February), 66 (March), 69 (April), and 65 (June). That's the “sinking numbers” trend that ABC latched onto as the most important news from latest polling data. Fact: Obama is down 1 percentage point since March.

Tapper, though, was hardly alone at ABC News, as reporters and commentators on all platforms seemed to make a concerted effort last week to downplay, if not completely ignore, the good news the network's own polling data revealed about Obama. It seemed that ABC had simply produced a poll with the wrong results. And since conformity is king inside the Beltway press, ABC staffers really had no choice but to play dumb about the survey.

Taken as a singular event, ABC's odd effort wasn't that big of a deal and might not even warrant close scrutiny. But ABC's stunt represented part of a larger trend within the Beltway press corps in which the so-called liberal media go out of their way to concoct story lines about looming troubles for Obama. Not satisfied to simply report the facts (the president remains very popular), the press is way too eager to dress up the story line. It's way too eager to inject GOP-friendly talking points about how Obama's not really that popular.

The press trend, of course, runs completely counter to the myth about an Obama media honeymoon. Because I'm pretty sure if Obama were enjoying a media honeymoon, ABC News would have touted its recent poll results, not gone out of its way to present the findings as bad news for Obama.

For instance, the night before Tapper's GMA report, Nightline co-anchor Cynthia McFadden introduced a segment on the poll by announcing, “Five months into the job, a new poll indicates President Obama is losing support among some Americans.” The segment opened with on-screen text that asked: “Why the Slide?”

Reality check: Obama had just garnered an envious job approval rating of 65 percent (10 points higher than George W. Bush at this point in his first term), but ABC's headline was that Obama was “sliding,” and the segment emphasized that he was “losing support among some Americans,” that his support was “ebbing.” Technically, it was true. Obama was down from an approval rating of 69 percent in April to 65 percent in June. But did that really translate into bad news, as McFadden stressed?

If nothing else, the Nightline report may have been historic, because I'm pretty sure Barack Obama is the first president in the past 40-plus years to land a holding-steady 65 percent job approval rating and have it be tagged by the press as “ebbing.”

Online, ABC News did its best to continue the bad-news-for-Obama theme. ABC's polling pro wrote up his glass-half-empty analysis of the poll under the headline, “Obama's Honeymoon Forecast: A Hint of Clouds on the Horizon.” ABC's The Note set aside a single sentence to acknowledge that Obama “retain[ed] impressive approval ratings.” But The Note then spent the next 16 paragraphs quoting and highlighting what Beltway insiders were saying about Obama's polling woes -- about how Obama might become unpopular one day.

Meanwhile, over on his blog, This Week host George Stephanopoulos posted an item under the headline: “Obama's Poll Numbers Falling to Earth?” In his post, Stephanopoulos stressed that Obama was “slipping a bit,” but never once mentioned that Obama's approval rating stood at 65 percent, down just 1 point from March.


For some perspective on how the Beltway press used to report on job approval ratings, let's hit the Wayback Machine and look at how ABC News covered its own data in 2001, when freshly inaugurated President Bush's approval rating stood at a very Obama-esque 63 percent [emphasis added]:

And right now, 63 percent of American voters tell ABC News that they approve of the job President Bush is doing, and that's a number that any White House would be happy with.

That was the report from ABC's World News Morning on April 30, 2001. ABC News was quite clear, and quite accurate: any White House would be happy with a 63 percent job approval rating, except, we're now told, the Obama White House.

Also, note that in May 2003, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, ABC News found that Bush scored a hefty 71 percent approval rating. However, only 52 percent of Americans approved of the way he handled the economy, and only 43 approved of the way he ran the federal budget. But there was no widespread media buzz about how Americans approved of Bush but were deeply troubled about his policies and that political trouble loomed.

Why? Because it wasn't news or noteworthy. That trend -- that gap -- had been detectable for decades among presidents with robust job approval ratings. Indeed, it's illogical to think that the opposite would be true -- that voters would approve of a president's specific policies more than they'd approve of the way the president was doing the job. With Obama, though, that polling gap suddenly dominates the coverage of his approval numbers.

Meanwhile, if you want to see how hard ABC spun its own poll results, take a look at Tapper's report on GMA.

Trying to boost his “yes, but” premise, Tapper stressed: “A majority of respondents, 52 percent, believe President Obama's first major legislation, the $787 billion stimulus package, has made no difference in the economy.” According to ABC News, that was a very big deal.

But was it? After all, Obama himself never suggested that the sprawling stimulus spending bill would make a difference in the economy just 100 days after he signed it into law. Indeed, most of the stimulus money hasn't even been spent yet. (Most of it hasn't even been allocated.) So it's not surprising that most Americans don't think the stimulus bill has made a difference yet.

What Tapper failed to highlight, however, was the fact that a majority of Americans, according to ABC's own polling data, think the stimulus bill “has helped or will help the nation's economy,” which, of course, is what it's designed to do.

The other data point Tapper stressed in his report about Obama's “sinking numbers” was that “for the first time since he took office, the views of whether the country is going in the right direction have gotten worse, from 50 percent in April to 47 percent today.”

The slightest bit of context here would have obliterated the suggestion that the dip mattered. Here's the missing context: When Obama was inaugurated, the “right direction” number stood at just 19 percent. And last fall, it was a barely visible 8 percent, which means that since just before Obama was elected, that number has skyrocketed nearly 600 percent. It has reached heights not seen in this country since at least 2004. But according to ABC News' twisted take, that's bad news and simply highlights how Obama is “losing support among Americans.”

You can't make this stuff up.

Meanwhile, do I even have to mention how the Beltway press corps spent years in denial about Bush's plummeting second-term job approval ratings and how so many media insiders spent that time actually predicting a Bush ratings rebound? Yet, just five months into Obama's first term, the same Beltway press seems obsessed with talking down the Democratic president's lofty poll numbers.

In fact, last week, reporters and pundits at ABC News were so eager to talk down Obama that they mangled their network's own polling data.

So much for the media honeymoon.