Obama’s Boasting Reaganesque Approval Ratings, So Where’s The Media Attention?

For a leader regularly written off by the press as a lame duck 18 months ago, President Obama has tallied some major wins during his second term, and voters have taken notice. He’s normalized relations with Cuba, implemented a historic Iranian nuclear deal, signed a global climate pact with nearly 200 nations, overseen the continued success of Obamacare, all while the economy has recorded 73 straight months of job growth.

No wonder that polls point toward a Democrat succeeding him in the White House.

So why isn’t there more media credit directed his way? Is the press making the mistake of reading off the Republican campaign script this year, which insists America is teetering on collapse? (Obama joked at the White House Correspondents Dinner: “The end of the Republic has never looked better.”)  

Whatever the reasons, let’s note there hasn’t been a media rush to document Obama’s strong standing in recent weeks. CNN last month timidly suggested, “there's some evidence that the public is viewing Obama … more fondly.” The first clue? Obama’s approval rating hit a three-year high of 53 percent, according to Gallup. (He boasts a staggering 66 percent approval rating today among voters 18-29.)

Obama’s strong showing has remained steady since March: Gallup on Monday pegged his approval rating at 52 percent.

Note that the president’s approval rating dropped down to 40 percent just 18 months ago during the midterm election cycle in 2014, which means he’s ridden a 13-point surge over the last year-and-a-half. Doesn’t that qualify as news?

The president averaged a nearly 50 percent approval rating from January 20 through April 19, his 29th quarter in office, according to Gallup. That 29th quarter represents “one of the higher quarterly averages in his presidency to date.” That’s especially remarkable considering second terms are not traditionally kind to presidential approval ratings.

Recall that our previous two-term president left office with a 22 percent approval rating, while his vice president signed off with a thumbs-up from 13 percent of voters. 

What’s also impressive is that in today’s hyper-partisan environment, Obama has been able to boost his standing while getting almost no support from Republican voters.

“Obama is the first president since polls existed to have never gone above 25 percent approval from the other side,” noted Paul Waldman at the American Prospect. Obama’s approval among Republicans currently stands at just 14 percent, according to Gallup. Given today’s rugged political terrain, “If a president can stay at 50 percent, he should be counted a remarkable success,” Waldman argued.

But don’t look for lots of media tributes. The truth is, during his two terms the press has repeatedly worked to depict Obama’s standing as being on the decline, and often downplaying his success. (Also, good news is no news.) As Media Matters noted in 2010, “Beltway scribes today have made it plain that when it comes to Obama and polling, good news is no news.”

And when Obama’s standing did fall, the press eagerly piled on, as I laid out after Democratic losses in 2014:

Right after the election, a November Economist editorial announced, “Mr. Obama cannot escape the humiliating verdict on his presidency.” Glimmers of hope after the midterms were no reason to think Obama had “somehow crawled out of the dark place that voters put him,” the Washington Post assured readers. (Post columnist Dana Milbank has recently tagged Obama as a hapless "bystander" who's "turning into George W. Bush.") And a McClatchy Newspapers headline declared, “President Obama Is Now Truly A Lame Duck.”

So it’s not surprising the same press corps is in no rush today to detail Obama’s recent surge in popularity, and in fact seems to tiptoe around it. 

In January, The New York Times looked ahead to Obama’s final year in office and stressed, “polls show doubts about his handling of critical issues.” Contrasting his second term with Bill Clinton’s and Ronald Reagan’s, the Times insisted Obama began the year “without the advantages of popularity that Reagan and Mr. Clinton had.”

In other words, both Reagan and Clinton were very popular during their final year in office, but Obama was not. Yet recently, Obama’s Gallup approval rating slightly exceeds Reagan’s from the same point in the Republican’s eighth year in office.

Obama’s Gallup rating April 25-May 1, 2016: 51 percent.

Reagan’s Gallup rating May 2-May 8, 1988: 50 percent.

So where are the media acknowledgements? (In the press, Reagan is often used as shorthand for a universally popular president.) In recent months, the Times has made only a few passing references to Obama’s approval ratings, according to Nexis.

In early March, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Obama’s approval rating had risen to 51 percent, up from 45 percent in December. Big news, right? Nope. The Post reported that 51 percent fact in the ninth paragraph and devoted just one sentence to his surge.

Here’s another example: Last June when a CNN poll found that Obama’s approval rating dipped to 45 percent, CNN played the data as big news (“President Barack Obama's job approval numbers are sinking”), complete with the taunting headline “Bush Now More Popular Than Obama.” 

But more recently, when CNN polling pegged Obama’s approval at 51 percent, CNN downplayed the news. CNN’s polling write-up about the survey included just one sentence noting the president’s surge.

And in a recent 8,000-word opus, Politico outlined what it claims to have been Obama’s “failure” to communicate his agenda, and what “went wrong” inside the White House. It wasn’t until 7,000 words into the feature that Politico acknowledged Obama’s approval rating recently hit a three-year high. Politico also never mentioned that Obama’s approval today matches that of Reagan’s, who was known as The Great Communicator.

To date, Obama’s second term has been a broad success, and lots of voters agree. When’s the press going to take note?