A polling puzzle: Obama's popularity at low ebb, even as economy improves

Obama is finishing 2013 with his approval ratings at an all time low, despite encouraging news on unemployment and GDP. Obamacare is one reason, but so, it appears, is the economy.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking during his end-of-the-year news conference at the White House, Dec. 20, 2013.

The last few months have taken their toll on President Obama's popularity.

Currently vacationing in Hawaii, Obama is finishing 2013 with approval ratings at an all-time low – and the lowest they've been for any president at this point in their term since Richard Nixon, according to one new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The Real Clear Politics average puts Obama's approval rating at just over 42 percent, and his disapproval rating at 54 percent. The numbers are particularly striking when you consider that just a year ago, they were reversed, with approval ratings of about 54 percent and disapproval ratings of 42 percent.

The botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act clearly took a major toll on Obama – and the law itself is seen by Americans as both Obama's greatest achievement and his greatest failure to date, according to a new Gallup poll – as did the government shutdown and NSA surveillance controversy.

But perhaps most surprising, given that voters name the economy as their No. 1 issue, is that his tanking approval ratings coincide with an economic rebound. Unemployment is at 7 percent – its lowest level in five years – and GDP is growing. The 4.1 percent annualized pace of growth recently reported for the third quarter is the fastest quarter for GDP growth in two years.

Voters seem at least partially aware of that fact. In a year-end USA Today/Pew Research Center poll that also found abysmal approval numbers, and which chronicled how badly the Affordable Care Act and its botched rollout has hurt Obama, one of the few bright spots for the president were the views on his handling of the economy. While that number is still low – 42 percent – it has risen 11 points in just a month.

Given how much voters care about the economy, why is Obama's approval tracking in the opposite direction?

One reason is that the reaction to the Obamacare rollout seems to be having an unusually strong effect, far overshadowing any help that economic gains might otherwise have given Obama.

According to the USA Today/Pew poll, perceptions of Obama's effectiveness, honesty, and leadership have also suffered greatly in the past year, with negative views on all three traits increasing by double digits since January. A majority of Americans in all recent major polls also express dissatisfaction both with the new health-care law and its implementation.

But beyond the Obamacare effect, Americans' perception of the economy doesn't seem aligned with the news about its recovery. According to the Post-ABC poll, 79 percent of Americans still say the economy is in recession. (In a slightly more encouraging sign for Obama, 59 percent said that based on their personal experience, the economic recovery has begun.)

The bigger question for Obama is whether sustained economic gains – assuming the public eventually starts believing those gains – will eventually be enough to help him in the public eye. And whether his approval ratings can recover soon enough to help his party in next year's midterm elections.

In his year-end news conference, Obama shrugged off the polls and said that his only concern is whether things are improving for Americans.

"If you’re measuring this by polls, my polls have gone up and down a lot through the course of my career,” Obama said. “If I was interested in polling, I wouldn’t have run for president.”

“We head into next year with an economy that’s stronger than it was at the start of the year,” he added, saying that, “I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.”

One possible bright spot for Obama: Polls show Congress faring far worse than the president when it comes to Americans' opinions, and Congressional Republicans faring worst of all.

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