Obama's Approval Rating Remains Unchanged This Year, So Why All The Press Coverage About “Sinking” Poll Numbers?

The news media reminders arrive almost daily now: President Obama's approval rating is low and going lower. McClatchy Newspapers highlighted the “dropping approval ratings,” while the Washington Post declared “President Obama's approval ratings have plunged to record lows.” The Christian Science Monitor noted the numbers have "plummeted." The Washington Examiner stressed the president's approvals were “sinking to historic lows,” while an Atlantic headlined announced, "“Obama's Sinking Approval Could Drag Democrats Down With Him.”

The portrait being painted by an array of media artists is unmistakable: Obama's approval ratings are not only weak but they're going down, down, down.

But it's not true.

The part about Obama's “dropping” and “sinking” polling numbers simply isn't accurate, not matter how many times it's repeated inside the Beltway echo chamber.

Does the White House wish Obama's job approval rating was higher? I'm sure his advisers do. Does polling indicate that Democrats face the possibility of deep losses next week in the midterm elections? Yes. Does that mean the press should just make up narratives about the president's approval rating simply because it fits in, again, with anti-Obama spin that Republicans are pushing?

It does not.

According to the cumulative ratings posted daily at Real Clear Politics, which averages together an array of national polls to come up with Obama's composite job approval rating, the president's approval on January 1, 2014 stood at 42.6 percent. The president's approval rating on October 30, was 42 percent. So over the course of ten months, and based on more than one hundred poll results in 2014, Obama's approval rating declined less than one point.

One point.

I can safely say Obama is only president in U.S. history whose approval rating dropped a single digit over a ten-month stretch and it was described as having “plummeted.”

And no, there hasn't been a large fluctuation during the year. Obama's high for the year hit 44 percent in February. His low fell to 41 percent in July.

Gallup tells the same story. It posts daily tracking results for Obama's approval rating. On January 1, 2014 it was 42 percent. On October 30, it was 43 percent. Also, there was no major fluctuation. Obama peaked at 44 percent (May and June) and bottomed out at 38 percent (September).

Here's Gallup's look at Obama's “sinking” poll numbers this year:


The larger story the press doesn't bother telling? How amazingly consistent Obama's approval rating been for four of the last five years. (It experienced a bump in the fall of 2012, during the height of the president's re-election campaign.)

From Gallup:

  • October 30, 2010: 44 percent
  • October 28, 2011: 43 percent
  • October 28, 2013: 42 percent
  • October 28, 2014:  42 percent

Minus a burst at the end of the 2012 campaign, Obama's approval rating since 2010 hasn't really budged outside of a three or four point range. But the press doesn't write that story. Instead it embraces and utterly absorbs the GOP's preferred narrative: Obama's presidency is collapsing!

The fact that the president's approval rating hovers in the low 40s isn't news. It has been there for a majority of his presidency. So why does the Beltway press seem so anxious this election season to treat Obama's steady approval as news, and to pretend the president's approval rating has suddenly fallen from a lofty perch?  

“President Obama's approval rating has plunged to a new low of 40 percent,” announced ABC News' Amy Robach on October 15. She was referring to an ABC/Washington Post poll that showed Obama's approval rating had slipped from 42 to 40 percent, which hardly represented a plunge, since the slight movement fell inside the poll's margin of error.

Nonetheless, the Washington Post also played up that polling result big in its coverage:

Heading into the final weeks of the midterm campaign, the political landscape is tilting in favor of the Republican Party, with President Obama's overall approval rating at the lowest level of his presidency and GOP voters signaling greater likelihood than Democrats that they will cast ballots next month.

Obama's approval rating dip from 42 to 40 percent was big news at the Post, and was stressed in the first paragraph of the news article. But look at how the Post downplayed its own polling data just two weeks later when it showed Obama's approval had bumped up from 40 to 43 percent - a larger movement in the other direction, albeit one that remained within the margin of error.

From the fifteenth paragraph [emphasis added]: 

The new Post-ABC survey puts Obama's overall national approval rating at 43 percent, up a statistically insignificant three points from two weeks ago.

That's right, when the approval rating dropped two points, the movement was hailed as big news at the Post. When it went up three points that same month, it was dismissed as “statistically insignificant”?

The Post, like lots of Beltway news media outlets, appears to be too firmly committed a Republican talking point about Obama's “sinking” approval rating.