The Trump campaign is drawing attention to this measuring stick for obvious reasons. President Obama wasn't terribly popular in September of 2011, nursing a lackluster approval rating as his re-election year approached. Despite appearing vulnerable, Obama went on to win a second term by a fairly comfortable margin, over a competent but ultimately unsuccessful GOP ticket. Incumbents are simply hard to beat. The data, via Newsweek:
President Donald Trump's job approval rating this week averaged across major polls surpassed that of his predecessor President Barack Obama at the same time eight years ago, giving some actual good news to Trump who is known to cite only conservative-leaning polls to bolster his image. Trump's approval rating on Wednesday was 44.3 percent, according to a Real Clear Politics average of more than a half-dozen major polls. That is higher than Obama's average approval rating of 43.9 percent on September 18, 2011, by the same measure.
That's certainly heartening news for Team Trump, but it only goes so far. An important point of departure is that Obama's approval average topped 60 percent early in his first term, and jumped above 50 percent for a period in 2011. At no point in his entire presidency has Trump hit 50 percent in average approval. Obama's ceiling was demonstrably higher than Trump's. Obama needed to draw a contrast and win people back. Trump needs to try to win people who've never approved of his job performance. That's a heavier lift, something about which I've been sounding the alarm for awhile. On the other hand, Trump's economic approval rating has been consistently significantly higher than Obama's was around this time period of each man's respective first terms, probably because the Trump economy has been markedly stronger than the Obama economy, across numerous key metrics. This -- coupled with Democratic extremism -- remains the strongest wind at Trump's back, despite some indicators of headwinds. As for Trump's prospects for winning another term, add this data point to Joe Biden's 'electability' argument to Democratic voters:
“In counties where the 2016 vote was close (Hillary Clinton and Trump within 10 points), Biden is ahead by 21 points” https://t.co/CluvekL2F9— Allahpundit (@allahpundit) September 19, 2019
Hypothetical head-to-head numbers are still very unreliable at this stage of a national campaign, but Philip Klein recently wrote why the data suggests that Trump is in grave danger of losing next year:
Having been burned the last time around, pundits may be wary of saying so, but the truth is President Trump is in serious danger of losing his reelection bid in 2020...To start, it’s worth remembering just how close Trump came to losing in 2016. Despite the appearance of a relatively comfortable Electoral College margin, Trump won because he edged out Hillary Clinton in three states (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan) by less than a point. Effectively, 80,000 additional votes in those states would have swung the election to Clinton. The Democratic nominee does not need to do dramatically better than Clinton in order to win, but only to marginally improve over Clinton’s performance in these battlegrounds. Both nationally and at the individual state level Trump is extremely unpopular...Other factors that Trump benefited from in 2016, such as the element of surprise and the lack of energy among Democrats, is unlikely to be repeated in 2020, now that their voters understand the reality of a Trump presidency. Again, none of this is to say that Trump is doomed. After all, he won in 2016 despite polling as the least popular nominee of any major party in the modern polling era. But there are many danger signs.
Klein also hints that Trump's decently strong economic approval rating could actually be a bad sign for his re-election fate, as voters are willing to acknowledge the results of some crucial policies (tax reform, deregulation, etc), but remain intractably turned of by the president's erratic comportment, temperament, etc. The point about Democratic apathy and complacency not being replicated is also undoubtedly true, meaning that Trump will need a Herculean effort from his own base to counteract an inevitable blue surge. He'll also need to win over many of the independent-minded, and even right-tilting, voters who don't like how he conducts himself. That's a reality that his hardcore supporters never want to acknowledge, but it's a reality nonetheless. One factor that could help him on this front is alienating Democratic overreach on political tactics and policy.
I don't believe Elizabeth Warren is "unelectable" (I'm not sure what that term means these days), but she could be a tougher sell for Trump-weary moderates. On that score, I'll leave you with this poll showing her struggling against Trump in New Hampshire, where every other Democrat is -- again, hypothetically -- leading POTUS at the moment: