Don't look now, but Obama is suddenly popular again

President Obama's job approval numbers have risen steadily all year, a potential boon to the Democrats in November. Maybe he can thank the wild race to replace him. 

Enric Marti/AP/FILE
President Barack Obama greets members of his delegation after laying a wreath at the Jose Marti monument in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, on March 21.

Without fanfare, President Obama has accomplished something he might not have dreamed possible just a few months ago: a steady rise in his job approval ratings.

Since mid-December, when he was deeply “under water” – averaging only 43.5 percent job approval and almost 52 percent disapproval, according to RealClearPolitics – Mr. Obama has climbed upward, slowly but surely.

A month ago, Obama crossed into positive territory – more approval than disapproval – for the first time since May 2013, and hasn’t looked back. Some nonpartisan polls, such as Gallup, even show him regularly polling above 50 percent.

If these numbers hold, they could help Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, in her quest to succeed Obama, as well as other Democrats down ballot. As Obama’s poll numbers rise, so too does his value as a surrogate on the campaign trail, at least in some parts of the country.

The rise of Obama’s job approval also points to some “give” in the narrative of a deeply polarized nation. There is, apparently, a group in the middle that has been willing to shift its view of a president many either love or dislike intensely. Even if “swing voters” are a vanishing breed in elections, some are willing to “swing” in their view of the president.

So why is Obama suddenly looking pretty good, or good enough, to a growing number of Americans?

For starters, he could be benefiting from what some call the “nostalgia effect.” As a president heads toward the finish line, Americans realize he won’t be around much longer, and some who previously held a negative view go positive. This trend isn’t necessarily Obama-specific.

“Commentators point to a tendency for voters to appreciate – or at least be less critical of – lame-duck presidents,” writes Gina Jannone, senior writer/editor at Rasmussen Reports polling firm. 

George W. Bush didn’t benefit from that phenomenon, leaving office amid two unpopular wars and a crashing economy, but Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan seem to have. Both departed with job-approval ratings well above 50 percent, despite scandals.

In Obama’s case, voters remain anxious about the future of the country and about their own economic and physical security. True, unemployment has been cut in half since Obama took office, but two-thirds of Americans see the nation as being on the “wrong track,” versus just 27 percent who see it on the “right track.”  The populist appeal of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is an obvious result.

And yet Obama is going through a bit of a renaissance. Or as a commentator in Fortune magazine put it last month, “Americans are falling in love with Barack Obama, again.”  That’s a bit of an overstatement, but three weeks after it was written, Obama’s numbers have only improved.

The answer to “why” may also link directly to the free-wheeling reality TV show known as the 2016 presidential race. 

“It is possible that the rage and uncertainty swirling around the 2016 race may be turning many voters’ attention away from the performance of the sitting president and muffling criticism of him,” writes Ms. Jannone.

It’s also true that, in his final months in office, Obama has done some things that Americans like. The opening to Cuba – punctuated by his historic visit to Havana last month – is popular. A majority of Americans believe Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland should be confirmed, and nearly 60 percent say Judge Garland should at least have a confirmation hearing.

The days of bold, risky initiatives, like health-care reform and executive actions aimed at helping illegal immigrants, are probably long over. A gridlocked Congress has made for a light legislative agenda, and the president’s days often feature events heavy on symbolism. Tuesday was Equal Pay Day, and he delivered a speech designating the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party as a national monument. 

In interviews, Obama himself is starting to sound nostalgic. He’s going to miss Air Force One. His elder daughter, Malia, is about to go away to college. Every annual milestone, like the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House, is the last of his presidency.

Still, there’s no guarantee things will remain this quiet for Obama, or that his numbers will keep trending upward. He has more than nine months to go, and in the presidency, as with politics, that’s almost a lifetime.

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