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Matt Towery / December 4, 2009

Obama Approval Ratings Ready for a Dive

If you like red meat, then this column might not have enough blood in it for your taste. But if you want less opinion and more analysis that’s based on a pollster’s experience, then read on. It might provide you with a little beef to offer when you talk politics this holiday season.

In my daily job as a nonpartisan pollster, I can’t allow my personal opinions to impact the numbers. Readers might recall that when President Obama was first sworn in and enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings, I wrote that those who didn’t like the numbers would have to live with them.

In February, I wrote that while the president was still popular, the overconfident Democratic Congress was rapidly shoving Obama’s agenda too far to the left. I also noted that the president was too ambitious. It all reminded me of Jimmy Carter’s first year in office.

In August, I noted that the February predictions seemed to be coming true. By the summer dog days, Obama’s approval ratings in various national polls had dropped from the 70 percent-plus of January to anywhere from 52 percent to 57 percent.

Now, as we enter December, we find the president at 49 percent approval. That’s according to Gallup, which I generally consider the most consistent of the pollsters that regularly gauge national approval ratings.

Most all polls of Obama are discovering a drop or a stall in his approval ratings and a rise in his disapprovals.

What’s to follow is likely bad news for the White House. The president is like a man who crosses the street from the left side, only to hesitate when he gets in the middle of traffic. He’s in danger of getting hit simultaneously from both directions. Look for the likelihood of polling numbers to that effect by early 2010.

Obama may get a momentary “success bump” in his approval numbers if and when a health care bill passes Congress and makes its way to the White House for his signature. But this upward spike probably will be short-lived, because health care isn’t the foremost issue on the minds of most Americans – and also because whatever changes a new health care bill will bring about, they will likely take a long time to be noticed by the public. (And those changes may be unpopular when they do surface.)

Watch the stock market, too. It’s risen of late, but its success is a mirage, created by comparing the dismal earnings of early last year with stronger ones now. Yet this new market health can be attributed to job layoffs and other trimming of business fat (or bone). Once next year’s earnings reports come out, the market will be headed for a downward correction. Trust me.

Of greatest concern to the White House is that the climbing market of the last six months hasn’t brought on a parallel rise in Obama’s approval numbers. They’ve been headed in the opposite direction. What happens to him when things get worse again?

The promise of jobs to be created through stimulus packages and other neat tricks isn’t going to be met. Just this past week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the nation’s highway contractors are starting to run out of projects. That doesn’t sound “shovel-ready” to me. And when “Main Street” doesn’t start rehiring early next year, and retail and other critical sectors of the economy haven’t gotten a boost from the holiday season, pessimism and frustration will surge again among Americans.

When both “the rich” and “the main-streeters” get nervous, another drop in President Obama’s approval ratings won’t be far behind. The main movers of this downward tic in his ratings likely will be the same “independents” that voted for Obama and his promise of “change you can believe in.” By then, they’ll be noticing change, but not the kind they bargained for.

And don’t forget Afghanistan. Although the president is not going to dispatch as many more soldiers to that war front as his generals want, the 30,000 additional troops he has committed to has shocked many in his liberal base of core supporters. Watch for frustration and disillusionment to rise among these Americans, especially young voters who supported him so passionately a year ago.

It’s not inconceivable to me that President Obama could find himself reeling within six months, with an approval rating of 46 percent or less. Where he might go from there will depend on whether the Democratic Congress and the White House wake up and realize that governing with political moderation is their only salvation.

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