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Obama's Plunge in Popularity is No Big Deal (Yet)

After a decisive victory in November and attendant surge in popularity, President Barack Obama’s post-election honeymoon appears to be coming to an end. A wave of recent polls show that his job approval ratings have dropped from their post-election peak, leading some to blame the sequester and others to speculate that the president has lost his “political capital,” presumably endangering his agenda. That's probably overstating things. While the decline certainly isn't good news for the White House, it's not entirely surprising, either. Presidents receive a post-election bounce, and it usually comes back down.

But if it continues to fall, especially as the 2014 midterms approach? That's a different story.

Eight surveys conducted this month show an average of 47 percent of Americans supporting the president’s performance, down from the mid-fifties in December. While some observers have attributed the fall to the sequester, which took effect March 1, many surveys, including Quinnipiac, Fox News, Pew Research, CBS, and Gallup, already showed the president's popularity slipping by February. And although the lack of a public outcry over sequestration has hurt the administration's chances of securing new revenue, it probably helped Obama's approval rating because the public tends to lose confidence in a president’s leadership when things aren’t going well, even if they don’t think he’s to “blame.”

The ratings' steady decline isn’t surprising. So long as Republicans remain uniformly dissatisfied with the president, Democrats need to be all but entirely unified for Obama’s approval ratings to eclipse 50 percent. Even support from 85 percent of Democrats, still an impressive show of party unity, wouldn't be enough to keep the rating above 50. (YouGov/Economist and Washington Post polls both show Obama down to 87 percent approval among Democrats, while McClatchy/Marist showed Obama at 82 percent.) With tepid economic growth and a never-ending stream of manufactured crises to diminish the public’s faith in Washington, Obama wasn't likely to maintain that kind of party unity. Even without those problems, it was only a matter of time before Obama's ratings returned to the upper forties, which is more or less where he's been for the last three years, with only the debt ceiling crisis causing his numbers to dip further. So it’s safe to assume that what we're witnessing is merely a modest correction rather than the beginning of a severe drop in support.

Too much weight is given to the 50-percent threshold. Falling below that mark might give the impression that the president is “weaker” politically, but it hardly warrants notice. After all, the president entered his reelection campaign with similar numbers and ultimately won by a convincing margin. A larger decline in Obama’s approval ratings, to the low forties, would augur poorly for Obama’s second-term agenda, but not what we're seeing now. The president’s legislative initiatives, including a debt deal and immigration reform, depend on cultivating organic Republican support for compromise, not the president’s ability coerce Republicans with his popularity. Even at the height of his post-election bounce, Obama’s mid-fifties approval ratings didn’t force Republicans to accept a balanced approach to reduce the debt. But lower approval ratings, and the desire to raise them, could make the White House more interested in the long sought “grand bargain”—perhaps the only event, other than noticeably improved economic conditions, that might send the president’s approval rating back into the mid-fifties, or higher.

If Obama were able to get back to the mid-fifties, it could make a difference in the midterm elections. There is a clear if imperfect relationship between approval ratings and the performance of the president’s party in congressional elections: When the president has an approval rating beneath 50 percent, the president’s party has lost seats in every post-war midterm election, with a 45 percent approval rating loosely correlating with a loss of 30 or 40 seats. Approval ratings above 55 percent, however, have shielded the president’s party from suffering big losses (but haven't guaranteed gains). That's not to say Democrats will lose dozens of seats if Obama’s approval slips any further. After all, 96 percent of House Democrats represent districts carried by the president, and most survived a historic defeat in the 2010 midterm elections, when his approval was in the low-to-mid forties. So plenty of Democrats would survive even if Obama’s popularity fell further, but his dream of recapturing the House would be just that—a dream.