Why Is Obama’s Job Approval Rating Improving Now?

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

As hard as it may be to believe for many, President Barack Obama’s job approval rating has gone up this past quarter. That isn’t to say it’s anywhere near his highest quarterly average of 66.5%, in his 24th quarter, nor is it particularly high when compared to other presidents during the same quarter — it’s quite average, actually, according to Gallup.

Obama will leave the presidency on January 20, 2017, in just over 20 months, or more than 600 days. That may seem like a long time, and ultimately it is — it’s over a year, after all. But in terms of policy accomplishments, it’s not likely to be a period of major activity, considering the difficulties leading up to this point in his term. There have been a number of executive actions with limited scope and longevity, and a fair number of vetoes to bills that were long ago addressed as dead in the water. But in terms of real cooperative action with Congress, progress has been limited on both sides.

In 2013, Obama had yet to put up the white flag, joking with an interviewer who noted his struggles with Congress, “If you put it that way, Jonathan, maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly. I think it’s a little — as Mark Twain said, rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point.” Whether this holds true more than a year later, or whether the lame duck persona is beginning to sink in at this point, remains to be seen. Most indicators point to the latter, except, perhaps, on international fronts.

Why the improvement in approval?

Obama’s increase in approval doesn’t necessarily have to do with his upcoming departure. Past presidents have seen decreases during this quarter, often fueled by scandal or political action that was deeply criticized (a degree of inaction might be helping keep Obama’s worst critics at bay).

But it is certainly the case that having the news media and public eyes turned toward the upcoming presidential election takes some of the heat off the current president. To put it bluntly, there’s a whole new group of people to hate. Meanwhile, Obama’s policy successes, failures, and everything in between are less in the limelight.

But there have also been some positives that could be buoying the president during this period. Gas prices have been good, and the economy’s recovery, while imperfect, has been moving forward. The president’s overseas efforts may not be universally approved, but Republican reactions to his international efforts were strongly disapproved of, and efforts to forge an agreement with Iran have so far seen some success.

In a similar vein, the failed midterm elections for Democrats may have been partly blamed on Obama, but in the end it led to a Republican majority, which makes for a considerably larger red target than before. With more members of the GOP to be dissatisfied with in government, and equal or less progress being made on major policy items than before the election, Obama may be gaining from the loss in the long run in terms of his image.

What does this suggest for Obama’s legacy?

It’s a well-known fact that many presidents evoke a different reaction after they leave office. At times, this means a more positive legacy than they were given credit for during their time in office. Former President George W. Bush is a good example of this. It’s not that the public universally loves him now, but his favorability ratings climbed in 2013 from where they were when he left office, according to Gallup polls.

Part of this is a matter of time and distance. After all, hindsight sometimes is more generous than the moment allows for during a president’s time in the White House. Bush is given more credit today for the difficult decisions he had to make in those moments, though many have not forgotten his response to Katrina, or the results — economically, diplomatically, and in human lives — of the Iraq war. It doesn’t hurt when another controversial president takes office, making the former seem less problematic in comparison.

More from Politics Cheat Sheet: