Obama sees approval rating rise. Is it the economy or something else?

Gallup polling shows Obama enjoying his highest approval rating since July. Possible boosts include the economy and his clash with the GOP over the payroll tax cut. But he remains vulnerable.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama signing the payroll tax cut extension, Friday, in the White House Oval Office in Washington. President Obama has seen his approval rating going up as the election year approaches.
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President Obama has enjoyed a rebound in popularity, putting him in a stronger position to defend his presidency in next year's election campaign.

Of course, there's a long way to go between now and a 2012 vote that's still more than 10 months away.

But for Mr. Obama, the important thing for now is that his job approval ratings are moving generally up rather than down, despite attacks by Republican rivals and a still-weak economy.

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The latest sign: Gallup polling shows the president garnering 46 percent approval from American adults, the highest level since July and a big run-up after starting the month of December at 41 percent.

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Various polls of Obama's job approval, averaged by the website RealClearPolitics, show the same recovery over the past month.

Why the reversal of fortunes, after a summer downdraft in public support?

One big factor is that presidential ratings can be, in part, a mirror of how people feel about the economy and their own prospects. And on that front, the consumer outlook is that the economy is weak but improving.

On Tuesday, a widely watched index of consumer confidence, released by the Conference Board in New York, rose for December to 64.5, up from 55.2 a month earlier. (A reading of 100 on the index would equal the optimism seen in 1985.)

"After two months of considerable gains, the Consumer Confidence Index is now back to levels seen last spring," said Lynn Franco, director of research at the Conference Board. "It is too soon to tell if this is a rebound from earlier declines or a sustainable shift in attitudes."

The revival of consumer confidence, in turn, has come as the job market has shown signs of progress, the stock market stabilized, and European nations have made progress toward quieting a financial crisis.

Another reason the Obama brand name has gained ground, political analysts say, is the partisan fight over renewing a payroll tax cut for US workers. Amid a partisan stand-off, the president appears to have successfully cast himself as standing for middle-class interests.

House Republicans have supported the idea of a full-year extension for the tax break, but until recently looked unwilling to strike a compromise on a plan moved by Democratic-controlled Senate.

Assuming an extension of the payroll tax cut comes through, Obama can tout a win for average Americans – something he fought for and delivered that affects their bank accounts.

But if Obama is back in competitive territory, he remains vulnerable. As of the latest Gallup numbers (an average of its latest three days of polling), his disapproval rating is two points higher (48 percent) than his approval rating (46 percent).

Typically, sitting presidents who win reelection have had approval ratings above 50, Gallup says.

A lot will depend on where Obama's presidency heads from here, how the Republican campaign against him shapes up, and how the economy performs. For now, the race for president looks like it could be close.

A mid-December matchup by Gallup's shows voters opting for Obama over Mitt Romney as a Republican nominee by a 50-to-48 margin. The poll got the same result for another hypothetical matchup, Obama versus Newt Gingrich.

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