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Obama is Stagnant, Not Surging

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Right before Christmas, in the midst of a Congressional scuffle over payroll taxes, a new poll revealed President Obama’s approval rating was on the rise. The spin was predictable and immediate. Democrats saw a second Obama term. Republicans began to panic. And lazy political pundits eagerly parroted the “Obama is surging and Republicans are panicking” narrative. Had anyone cared to look beyond a single data point, it would have become apparent President Obama was stagnant, not surging.

First, it is important to understand the origins of the media-driven hype. Gallup’s daily tracking poll measured President Obama’s approval at 47% and disapproval at 45%. It was the first time since July his approval rating was higher than his disapproval rating. Although he was only at +2 approval/disapproval, it certainly appeared to be a significant accomplishment considering how long he’d been upside down in the polls. However, that accomplishment turned out to be very short-lived.

Just a few days after Christmas, Gallup found President Obama’s approval rating dipped to 46% and his disapproval rating jumped to 48%, placing him upside down once again. His slide did not stop there, though. As I write, President Obama stands at 41% approval and 50% disapproval. To be clear, the entire basis for the “Obama is surging” stories was a blip; nothing more than a statistical anomaly that sent politicians and pundits into overdrive.

If a statistical anomaly constitutes a compelling “trend” worth reporting, it begs the question why not report the subsequent data. In just one week, his approval/disapproval went from +2 to -9. While an 11-point slide is newsworthy (especially in this climate), it does not tell us a whole lot. It would be a stretch to proclaim this is evidence that President Obama’s support is crumbling and his reelection chances are nonexistent. Instead, it simply confirms the new normal for President Obama: an approval rating stuck in the low to mid 40s.

When it comes to polling, President Obama is stagnant. He ended December just as he ended November, with a 41% approval rating. That is slightly below his 3-month average and 6 points below his 3-month high. His disapproval stands at 50%, his average during the past three months. No surge, period.

Interestingly, we saw a similar phenomenon last December, too. “A President Reborn: Heading Into 2011 Support for Obama Surges” was a typical December 2010 headline. There was a slight difference though. In 2010, President Obama’s support actually increased ever so slightly during the month of December. He ended 2010 with a 50% approval rating, a 5-point increase from that November.

But those numbers only serve to undermine the notion that President Obama surged at the end of 2011. After his 2010 “surge,” President Obama was at 50% and +7 approval/disapproval. After his 2011 “surge,” he was at 41% and -9 approval/disapproval. Not only are President Obama’s poll numbers stagnant, but he is entering 2012 significantly weaker than he entered 2011.

There are a couple other lessons we can gleam from this media-generated nonsense. First, we should never overreact to any single poll. Second, conservatives must draw a clear contrast between their priorities and President Obama’s. The latter deserves some special attention. Drawing a sharp contrast is commonplace on the presidential campaign trail, but frequently less so in Congress. In 2012, it is imperative lawmakers remain committed to drawing that clear contrast to President Obama.

Think about this summer’s debt deal.

From a rhetorical standpoint, congressional Republicans created a clear contrast by advocating the end of Washington’s blank check culture. President Obama’s worst approval/disapproval of his term, -17, came in the aftermath. Not surprisingly, President Obama’s dreadful numbers tracked with substantial support for a Republican-controlled Congress. According to an August WSJ/NBC poll, registered voters preferred a Republicans-controlled Congress by a 6-point margin, levels not seen since 1997.

Anything can happen eleven months before an election, but one thing is clear: President Obama is not surging and he will remain stagnant so long as lawmakers remain on the offense and paint in bold colors.

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