By Sam Youngman - 06/10/10 10:00 AM EDT
President Barack Obama’s approval rating, pushed down by a bruising healthcare debate and an irritated liberal base, could be further tested by the prolonged Gulf oil leak and a sluggish economic recovery.
An average of Obama’s recent approval ratings compiled by Real Clear Politics shows that the president is hovering around 48 percent.
Some analysts contend the president has already hit his floor. But others say there is always room to dip lower, especially given a massive environmental disaster certain to last for months, if not years, and an economy that can’t quite right itself.
Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, thinks there is no such thing as an approval-rating floor, and that the leak and the economy could certainly send Obama’s numbers lower.
However, Keeter said, “Even without the oil spill, Obama’s numbers remain pretty parallel to Reagan’s, if not slightly better, at the comparable point in his presidency.
“The longer both problems go on, the more Obama will have to own them, of course,” Keeter said. “But that cuts both ways. When and if a reasonable economic recovery takes hold, Obama will be in a position to take credit for it. And the government will be in a better position to help with the cleanup of the oil spill than it is with regard to stopping the spill itself.”
White House officials declined to comment for this story.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, a columnist for The Hill, called it “remarkable” that Obama’s numbers have held in the 40s considering the assault the White House faced over healthcare and the recession.
Mellman said he can envision a scenario in which the president’s numbers dip below 40, but expressed skepticism because of the battles this White House has already waged.
“I think the floor has been tested under pretty severe circumstances in the past, and he hasn’t fallen through it,” Mellman said.
But Paul Light, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at New York University, suggested Obama’s numbers could fall into the 30s.
Light cautioned that observers should not confuse polls that blast Obama’s handling of the oil spill with his overall approval, because many will criticize the federal government even though they still like Obama.
Still, Light’s prediction that the president’s numbers could fall well below current levels reflects an economy that is recovering in part on the back of temporary Census jobs.
“It’s the economy that’s going to nail him,” Light said.
Although conventional wisdom has Jimmy Carter’s presidency being ruined by the Iran hostage crisis, Light noted it was actually dreadful economic numbers that doomed him. “It was the misery index, high inflation and high unemployment,” Light said. “It’s starting to look like the Republicans’ strategy of staying away from Obama’s economic agenda is going to hit pay dirt.”
Even as the economy is likely to be the biggest factor on voters’ minds in November, Light suspects a summer filled with daily reports about a seemingly endless oil spill will take its toll on Obama’s popularity.
And no matter how often the president talks tough — he said during one recent Gulf visit that he intended to find out “whose ass to kick” — the public may still be skeptical of how much Obama can do and whether he is doing it.
“There is a credibility gap when on Monday the president says he’s going to kick some ass, and on Tuesday the people who are taking the ass-kicking give their shareholders a nice dividend,” Light said. “How do you square those two?”