Just as I was about to file a column noting that President Obama’s job-approval rating had dropped to 46 percent for two consecutive days in the Gallup Poll—its lowest levels since late October—his rating popped back up 3 percentage points to 49 percent. That’s still below the 52 percent that he averaged over the first eight weeks of the year, but a 3-point drop is a good bit less than a 6-point drop.
During periods of unusually high political turbulence, instability in poll numbers is common. Sometimes when a lot is happening and voters are not sure what to think, their poll responses can reflect the impression they got from a television news story an hour before the pollster called or from a newspaper article or headline they read that morning. Their response today might be different from the one they would have given yesterday or the one they might give tomorrow. In such times, numbers bounce around a lot, so drawing conclusions from the results of one or even two polls is risky—as I almost learned again for the millionth time.
The early suspicion that Washington’s inability to head off budget sequestration would hurt both sides is still a very reasonable one, although the circumstances differ for each party. When pollsters ask respondents about approval/disapproval or favorable/unfavorable opinions of Congress overall, of the Republican Party, or of “Republicans in Congress,” the numbers start so low they have little room to drop. Recent numbers for the Democratic Party or “Democrats in Congress” have been mediocre at best but are still better than Republicans’, so they have more room to fall. Obama’s postelection numbers have been running about normal for presidents at this stage; his approval rating had been as high as 53 percent, with a disapproval rating of 40 percent, as recently as Feb. 24-26, but that was something of a spike.
Averages of all the polls compiled by RealClearPolitics show a gradual decline in Obama’s job approval since the first of the year, while the rival Huffington Post’s Pollster.com has his numbers very stable since the beginning of 2013. Because this is not an election year, fewer polls are being conducted. The most recent readings are coming from either the Gallup Organization or Rasmussen Reports’ nightly tracking.
Still, the widespread assumption that sequestration will produce no winners, only losers, will probably turn out to be accurate. To be sure, there is no federal election in the immediate future where Washington’s dysfunction is likely to be a huge factor. Neither the Massachusetts special election to fill Secretary of State John Kerry’s Senate seat nor the South Carolina special election to fill Sen. Tim Scott’s House seat is likely to turn on sequestration or D.C. politics.
But elected officials are political animals, constantly evaluating their personal standing and their party’s standing with the public, especially relative to others. To the extent there is fallout, it will be noticed. As a practical matter, relatively few members of Congress are in any real danger of losing reelection, My experience is, however, that elected officials are far more likely to be paranoid than overly complacent.
As we prepare to enter the second week of sequestration, few Americans have felt any pain or even inconvenience yet, although that will probably change a few weeks from now. Obama has stepped up phone calls to Republican members of Congress, putting out feelers but apparently not getting a lot of positive feedback. As part of the outreach, he hosted a White House dinner with select Republican senators on Wednesday night. In the GOP, many feel that Obama fundamentally misunderstands where conservatives are coming from. He wants to tie tax reform to entitlement reform, for example, assuming that conservatives want tax reform so badly that they’ll go for a deal that raises net revenues in exchange for some entitlement reform such as means-testing. Whether Republicans—specifically, the more conservative members of Congress—would have gone along with that before the year-end fiscal-cliff fight is debatable. But coming out of the tax increases generated by that fight, it is less likely now. As one well-connected Republican insider concluded after a discussion of where things stand in Washington, “This is really a screwed-up situation.”
This article appeared in the Saturday, March 9, 2013 edition of National Journal.