24 November 2009

The news noted a few days ago that, according to the Gallup Organization, the approval rating for President Obama had fallen below 50%.

I've been watching the Gallup poll (along with other polls) for some time now, and had become increasingly doubtful of its reports. As the rating approached the 50% line, an apparent asymmetry developed in the perturbations, to which I refer as skating. This skating was at its most pronounced when the rating would hit the 50% line; it might blip up, but it would not blip down.

The Gallup Organization has referred to the President's drop below the 50% line as symbolic, but in a nation that likes its decisions made by majorities or by super-majorities, and with the President being of a party that named itself for democracy, having less than majority approval is more than merely symbolic.

The next milestone comes if-and-when the reported share of the population who disapprove of the President's performance exceed those who approve. The Gallup Organization has reported the disapproval rating being as high as 44%, and as generally climbing. But, guess what? For the last few days, even as the President's approval rating has been admitted to have dropped below 50%, the disapproval rating has been reported as plateauing, as if the loss of approval completely translated into indifference or indecision. Perhaps we are now going to see a sort of complementary asymmetry of reported perturbations for disapproval.

(The third milestone would be when the disapproval rating climbed above 50%.)

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4 Responses to Perturbing

  • Gaal says:

    What other-than-symbolic significance are you suggesting low approval ratings have? Surely the constitution does not stipulate that any of the three milestones you identify are grounds for termination of a presidency, nor anything like it.

    • Daniel says:

      On some level, even if the Constitution did provide such stipulation, the change would still be symbolic; but the key would be that it were not merely symbolic.

      Some very real political power comes from popular imputation of legitimacy, and in America legitimacy is associated with majority support. Hence supporters of elected officials seek to claim that said officials were elected not just by pluralities but by substantial majorities, and thus have mandates — a claim indeed made by supporters of the President when he enjoyed majority support. The President has lost real political power.

      (To defend the distinction in that word merely, I would assert that some things are indeed merely symbolic, as in the case of the US Postal Service using .com in its domain name.)

      • Gaal says:

        Say a president is elected with a wildly popular approval rating of 75%. Then after six months in office, a crisis occurs, in which the president makes some decisions, addresses the nation, and so on. Then the rating drops sharply to 55%. If by "real power" you mean the potential to further agendas, pass bills through congress, and so on, I suspect this president whose decline was swift is as worse off as the one who declined lower in absolute figures. Of course, this revolves around what we mean by "potential".

        • Daniel says:

          I think that you're quite correct in believing that a President who had just gone through a sharp decline in popularity could thus lose more political power than one who lost a greater percentage of popularity at a slower rate, but I think that this loss of power would be founded again in the notion that popularity establishes legitimacy.

          More specifically, a President who is expected to lose popular support loses power simply based on that expectation. Expectations are formed based upon apparent trends, and past volatility, so that a President who has been going through a sharp decline is somewhat expected to keep going through it, and a President who once went through such a decline may be seen as subject to such declines.

          Although I agree with your theoretical statement, I don't think that we can tease out the significance of the rate of reported decline, relative to that of absolute ratings, from the available data.

          Obama's decline has been fairly rapid. He began with relatively high initial reported rate of approval, and the Gallup Organization reports that only three of the twelve Presidents after FDR fell below the 50% level more rapidly.

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