Tuesday, 8 September 2009

End of the Obama Honeymoon?

The Times yesterday reported that President Obama's poll ratings have slumped forcing him into a rethink of his key healthcare reforms. The claim of an Obama poll slump is significant and deserves a more detailed analysis, as this could be the first sign of the end of the Obama honeymoon.

First it is worth looking at how the American public is reacting to the healthcare debate. The Times is right to point our that only a fifth of Americans believe they will be better off from what they understand about the new proposed reforms, according to the latest CNN/ORC polling. The same survey, conducted between 28th and 31st August, also shows that America is divided in its opinion of Obama's healthcare plans with 48% stating they are in favour compared with 51% against. Tellingly, the differences are not just on partisan lines with younger Americans (aged between 18 and 34 years) broadly in favour (60%) while older Americans (aged over 55 years) broadly opposed (60%).

Healthcare is clearly an issue where the President is losing public support. His approval ratings for handling health care policy has gone from 57% in mid March this year to 44% by the end of August. Yet Obama's wider approval ratings, though down over the summer, remain resilient. We've been monitoring the President's approval rating on a daily basis for the past few weeks, in particular focusing on the daily rolling surveys published by Gallup. Towards the end of last month his overall job approval ratings fell to exactly 50% in the surveys conducted between 24th and 29th August . However, since then, Gallup has seen his ratings rise slightly to 55% in the first week of September. The latest published survey, with fieldwork conducted 3rd to 5th September, has 52% of American's approving of Obama's performance.

When, and surely this is just a matter of time, Obama's approval ratings fall below 50% there will be many commentators arguing this demonstrates the end of the Obama honeymoon. While it is true that this will be a symbolic milestone it is worth remembering that statistically an approval of 49% is no different from 52% or 47% from 50%, as most surveys are conducted to be accurate within a margin of error of plus or mins three percentage points. And even when his ratings fall below 50% he will most likely have more in favour of his performance than against as it is usual to have five to ten percent of people not giving an opinion. When the President finds himself with more Americans disapproving of his performance than approving, the honeymoon will for sure be over.

Obama has indeed enjoyed a strong honeymoon - not so much for its duration, but its height. Between January and June this year in virtually every survey by Gallup (in 146 out of 156 polls) between 60% and 70% of the American public approved of Obama's performance - a consistently high rating, particularly given the economic crisis facing the country. July saw his approval ratings slip with his job average ratings for all the Gallup polls published in that month being 57% and slipping to 53% on average in August.

Part of the appeal of Obama has been the contrast he makes with his immediate predocessor, George W. Bush. While the former President governed for most of his second term with a majority of the public critical of his performance, the beginning of his first term was much different. Although he never began with the highs of Obama at no stage in his first year did Bush's approval rating, according to Gallup, slip below 50%. His lowest was recorded in a survey conducted 7-10th September 2001 when 51% of Americans expressed approval. The events of the following day transformed all of this. By the 15th September 86% of Americans approved of George W. Bush as President and by the 22nd this peaked at 90%.

For those of you who are wondering how this compares to our own Prime Minister's ratings, Ipsos MORI's latest survey, conducted in August, showed just 28% satisfied with Gordon Brown's performance - in fact the highest he's ever been rated was 44% in September 2007.

If you are interested in understanding the reasons for Obama's falling ratings this website is an excellent resource on American public opinion.

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