Obama approval holds steady despite BP spill. Why?

Gallup oil

This is Gallup’s tracking poll since January.  Pretty hard to discern any meaningful trend.  You certainly would be hard pressed to pick out any evidence of a BP-disaster effect.

Nate Silver notes that even on the narrower question of Obama’s handling of the disaster — [I only used “spill” in the headline this one time so it would fit on one line] — Obama’s numbers are flat if not slightly rebounding:

Because this seems counterintuitive it has led to much perplexity.  Silver writes:

1) Obama is fortunate that BP has bungled the handling of this as much as it has, and that certain Republicans have played to type.

2) It sometimes seems like whatever question you ask about Obama these days, somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of the country are going you a favorable response, and somewhere between 40 and 50 are going to give you an unfavorable response. The number of swing voters seems to be relatively few, which may suggest that November’s election will be more about turnout than anything else (not necessarily good news for the Democrats.)

3) Although I don’t know that there’s any way for the President to look good from having 60,000 barrels of oil a day spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, one wonders if these numbers wouldn’t be close to reversed (50 percent approving and 45 percent disapproving instead of the other way around) if the Administration hadn’t seemed to downplay or overlook the magnitude of the disaster in the first 20 days or so. That does seem to be a pattern with this White House: they’re a little passive at first, on issues ranging from the stimulus to the oil spill to health care, and are always running somewhat from behind.

4) In terms of their overall political trajectory, one of the biggest negatives for the Democrats may be that this issue (appropriately, to some degree) drowns out any other political conversation and makes it hard for them to get traction on anything else. On the other hand, considering that the economic indicators have contained more negative than positive “surprises” lately, and that with one or two partial exceptions, Democrats haven’t really figured out a way to steer legislation through the Congress without costing it 10 points’ worth of popularity, maybe that’s just as well.

5) Needless to say, all bets are off if the oil is still spilling after Labor Day.

But that doesn’t offer much of an explanation.  Though I will say that if people keep calling it a “spill” — as most seem to be doing — then that send a general message to the public that this isn’t really anybody’s fault and in any case is no big deal.

Of course, no true explanation is possible because

  1. We have no way of knowing what would’ve happened absent the disaster.  Perhaps Obama’s numbers would otherwise be slightly rising because of the economy.  Perhaps not (see below).
  2. A lot of polling is BS with actual errors far beyond the so-called margin of error — so much so that you can find a poll that will tell you almost anything.

But that doesn’t stop political scientist Steven Schier from offering his answer in a June 20 Atlantic post, “Why Has Obama’s Approval Held Steady Despite the Oil Spill?”

Tom Bevan at notes that on specific questions regarding the oil spill, Obama’s rating has shifted recently in a decidedly negative direction. So why isn’t that reflected in his overall job approval ratings?

Doh!  That “decidedly negative” shift reversed itself in only 2 days — assuming, of course, that the polling was accurate enough to know whether it ever really existed.

Schier continues:

Two reasons suggest themselves. First, Obama has BP to thank for his job approval stability.  BP has primary responsibility for the spill and response, and the blame is readily shifted to them — as Obama has done.  A large multinational corporation is a convenient presidential punching bag.  The public has by now learned much about the spill and apparently had decided that Obama does not merit sufficient blame to deserve lower job approval.

Contrast that pattern with the Iraq war, in which George W. Bush was the instigator and held direct responsibility in the public’s mind for the conflict and subsequent occupation.  As the bloody occupation drug on, citizens fixed blame squarely on Bush.

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz performed a recent analysis of Bush’s job approval ratings and found that his handling of Hurricane Katrina did not accelerate the decline in job approval that had already set in during early 2005.  Rather, the increasing job disapproval proceeded at the same pace as before Katrina.  The hurricane may have kept the trend going, but the trend began before Katrina and persisted long after Katrina.  That points to the conduct of the Iraq occupation as a more likely cause of the decline.

Second,  citizens have many grounds upon which to judge a president’s conduct in office, and the BP spill, with Obama’s attenuated responsibility for the disaster, seems not to be determinative among all of the factors an individual might consider in weighing a job approval verdict for the president.  There’s also the economy, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, health care, and a variety of other issues that may figure into an individual’s calculations.

The news for Obama on the issues just listed has not been good lately, and that is a greater threat to his presidency than BP alone.  Once a critical mass of disapproval on a variety of grounds arises, the president’s job approval will decline further. This contrasts somewhat with the situation of his predecessor, for whom the Iraq issue became a dominant negative driving down his popularity. The BP mess thus far hasn’t had the same effect upon Obama’s job approval.

It’s striking that Obama’s job approval has not reached the lows of Ronald Reagan during the 1982 recession.  Then, the new president fell to 41 percent approval in a July 1982 Gallup poll.  Obama now averages seven percent higher than that.  Has Obama reached the floor of his job approval?  If so, that’s very good news for the White House, because with his approval in the high forties, he remains a competitive candidate for reelection.  Over the next several month’s, we’ll be “testing the bottom,” and the results of that test will determine the fate of Obama’s reelection prospects.

Huh.  Actually, the news for Obama on the issues has been pretty good — he has utterly reversed the collapsing job market he was handed, and the economy is growing.  I think it is only pundits who obsess over every single negative monthly economic statistic they can find who miss that.

Sure the economy could be a whole lot better, but it has been a whole lot worse.

Anyway, nothing can move the large number of people who hate Obama.  The other two thirds of the country I think basically understand that Obama is not to blame for the disaster and there’s only so much he can do about it.  I watch a lot of the morning news shows and the coverage is pretty negative toward the Administration, but the fact is he delivered a $20 billion escrow fund and is clearly a smart, decent, well-staffed guy trying to do the right thing — a view a public quickly shed of his predecessor.  Also, the public does get an idea of what Obama is up against when they hear the likes of Joe Barton apologize to BP and when they see Tony Hayward act so incompetently.

If BP can collect more and more oil and ultimately stop this thing over the next few weeks, and the administration keeps up its grade B job on the clean up, then Obama’s job rating will continue to be primarily tied to the economy, I suspect.

If Obama can pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation this year, along with financial reform bill, and the job market continues its slow improvement, then his poll numbers are likely to stay at this level or rise slightly.  Or not.  Or the polls aren’t accurate enough for us to figure out if that actually happened.  One of those, for sure.

11 Responses to Obama approval holds steady despite BP spill. Why?

  1. Mona Reese says:

    Bravo, that was a fascinating analysis! Like many other Americans, I have been glued to all news related to the oil disaster. I agree that the President had delivered a mediocre response early on, but his latest efforts have improved my perception.

    It’s disappointing that specific measures for energy and climate legislation weren’t brought up in the presidential address. GOP opponents had leaked speculations that the president may use the disaster to push his own agenda and I think this is the biggest reason why it wasn’t talked about more. I guess we will just have to wait and see what the rest of the year brings.

  2. robhon says:

    I like the connection between Climate Progress and Nate Silver’s Two class acts! Two of my top favorite websites.

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    Turnout, and Enough Support to Matter

    I’m getting disappointed, frustrated, and worried.

    First of all, “approval” is one thing, and “hope” is another thing, and actual fired-up support and turnout at elections is entirely another thing.

    I’m trying and hoping to “hang in there” and to not find myself in the following position: Voting (for him and Dems) mainly in order to be able to say to myself that “it wasn’t my fault that turnout was bad and that our side lost”. I am hoping that the Administration and the Dems get much more accomplished, and show some verve, so that I can vote enthusiastically (like I did last time) and so we can actually win and get big stuff done. Right now, I’m about at that point where a good re-run of an old movie on TV could keep me away from the ballot box on election night. My “hope” is about at the 10% level relative to where it was not all that long ago.

    And there is something else: “Approval” is not the same as public insistence — and support — to get the big things DONE. And this problem is the public’s fault — i.e., ours. The climate is getting messed up, and how many people do you see at events, on the streets, and how many people are boycotting the big culprits? We — the public — are about as passionate and action-oriented as a snail slowly trying to maneuver its way though a pile of salt. I’m sorry, but that’s the way I see it, and I’m embarrassed.

    Who is frustrated and disappointed and upset? What are people going to DO about it?

    We need to inspire each other, inspire our leadership, and our leadership needs to LEAD and to inspire us! Whatever happened to inspiration? I feel about as inspired as a person at a funeral.

    I’m sorry, but something’s gonna have to change if we want the change that the world needs.

    Who will be in California in the next couple months, in the Bay Area? Who is meeting with who? Who has any ideas? (I have a few.) How do we get something going? Something big. No small thinking allowed. Big is the word.



  4. prokaryote says:

    “I’m getting disappointed, frustrated, and worried.”

    At least we can say later – i told you so :)

    If anyone is concerned about over population, i’m not.

  5. I don’t want to comment on this post–in fact I don’t even know what it’s doing here–but I do have a question for the climate scientists who read this blog.

    According to an MSNBC report, much if not all of the oil that BP is capturing from the Deepwater well is being burned off–apparently transferred directly into the air. My question is: is this a big deal in terms of global warming effects? Or doesn’t the intensity of the delivery into the atmosphere matter much? Or is the quantity comparatively negligible, against the normal carbon pollution from petroleum in its various forms burning every day? How about the non-global warming toxic effects in the Gulf, and beyond?

  6. Political scientists will tell you that the main factor affecting a US president’s popularity is the economy. Studies have shown, for example, that US presidential speeches have very little effect on the president’s popularity. Please read:

    What if political scientists covered the news?

    What Difference Will Obama’s Speech Make?

  7. Colorado Bob says:

    Observed events –

    Temperatures Scorch from Central and South Asia to North Africa

    The eastern side of Arabia last week suffered widespread 120-degree heat. A string of four 120-123 F days in the city of Kuwait ended on Wednesday. Doha, Qatar, reached 120 F on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In nearby Saudi, 120-degree heat was observed at Dhahran and Al Hufuf.

    Pakistan still sweltered at the start of the week with 121 F being reached amidst high humidity on Monday at Sibi.

  8. prokaryote says:

    Real Worst-Case Scenario For Gulf Of Mexico: Double Exploding Methane Trigggered Tsunamis, & …

    As some still insist on Drill Baby Drill – we should be more cautious about possible implications.

  9. Peter Mizla says:

    Obama has had a rough first 1.5 years-

    frankly- from a political historical perspective the current time reminds me of 40 years ago- when Nixon was President- the nation was really reticent at first with him- we where coming off a period of 38 years of liberalism (today 30-35 years of Conservatism)

    Nixon would be considered liberal today in the republican party. The trouble with the republican party today is they are racing too far to the extreme right- that position might not be able to solve the very complex solutions the nation will face in the early 21st century.

    The GOP gains may be short lived-simply becasue they choose to ignore progress and change, and believe all we need are the same policies back that got us into this mess!

    Climate change will perhaps be the biggest challenge the globe will face-ever- making WWI & II, the Great depression and the Cold War look trivial. The longer there are special interests stopping progress on climate change and blocking the finding of new energy sources- the more the nations economy will suffer- and the quality of life will decline.

  10. llewelly says:

    Captain Future says:
    June 23, 2010 at 2:21 am:

    … much if not all of the oil that BP is capturing from the Deepwater well is being burned off–apparently transferred directly into the air. My question is: is this a big deal in terms of global warming effects? Or doesn’t the intensity of the delivery into the atmosphere matter much?

    This topic already covered at RealClimate. It’s a lot, in absolute terms, but it’s tiny compared to total global emissions.