The stock market has hit sky-scraping highs, the unemployment rate has dipped to a five-year low and any number of economic statistics — new car sales, home prices, consumer spending — point to a perked-up economy that is steadily growing.
But one thing that has changed little is President Obama’s job approval rating, which tumbled over the last year to the anemic 40% range and remains stuck near the low point of his administration.
The chasm is striking, and a worrisome thing for Democrats already facing a tough election year. One of the most reliable barometers of political well-being is the state of the economy. Good times usually bring good tidings; woe to the incumbent and party in the White House when times are tough.
In the case of Obama and fellow Democrats, however, there has been a clear disconnect between economic indicators and political popularity.
The reasons are many, among them the depth of the Great Recession and the toll of the president’s healthcare reform effort, which has dragged down assessments of the president’s competence and trustworthiness.
The most important factor, though, may be the widely held view that, statistics aside, the economy is struggling and many, if not most, Americans have not benefited from the lumbering recovery. Significantly, millions who want to work still can’t find jobs.
“People are hunkered down,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington think tank that focuses on how policies affect low- and moderate-income families. “Very few are having an easy time of it.”
It is not unusual for widespread pessimism to fly in the face of upbeat economic news, even long after recovery has taken hold.
In 1994, well into the turnaround that began the boom years under President Clinton, people remained dissatisfied with the state of the economy, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. It was only in the latter part of the Clinton administration, after successive years of strong job growth, that attitudes changed, helping Democrats win seats in the 1998 midterm election. (Clinton’s own 1992 victory came about when voters ignored the budding economic recovery under President George H.W. Bush and ousted the Republican incumbent.)
The Great Recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private group in Cambridge, Mass., that officially charts the nation’s business cycles. That means the country is 4 1/2 years into recovery, technically speaking. However, job growth did not resume until 2010, and even with the 2 million positions added last year, the country still has not recovered all the jobs lost in the downturn, the steepest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Given a steady stream of good-tinged-with-bad news — the jobless rate, for instance, fell last month to 6.7%, the lowest level since October 2008, but only because so many stopped looking for work — polls continue to find a deep well of discouragement. Six in 10 said in a December Pew survey that the news they were hearing about the economy was mixed; 31% said they were hearing mostly bad news, compared with 7% who said the news was mostly good.
It is not just a perception problem, however.
The stock market may be rip-roaring and housing prices may have bounced back strongly, but those gains are illusory for many Americans, who are neither homeowners nor deeply invested in Wall Street. A Pew survey in September showed that more than 6 in 10 of those polled said the recession had a major effect on their lives and their finances had yet to fully recover.
Wages for both white- and blue-collar workers have been stagnant for more than a decade, a trend that predates not just Obama’s election but the 2008 global economic crisis. (The only period of broad-based wage and income growth since the early 1970s was a time around the late 1990s under Clinton.)
Some of the causes — technology, globalization — are beyond the powers of any president. And many of the remedies Obama has proposed — such as more federal spending on education, research and development — are strategies aimed at spurring growth in the longer term.
Even when good economic news has surfaced, the president hasn’t always been the most exuberant cheerleader. It is not his nature to radiate the optimism of the sunny Ronald Reagan or the buoyant Bill Clinton. But the economy hasn’t lent itself to their style of unbridled enthusiasm, either.
“He’s got this dual task,” said David Axelrod, a longtime Obama strategist and former top White House advisor. “One is to make clear that we have made progress, not just for his own political well-being but because it’s important for the psychology of the country to believe we’re going forward.
“On the other hand,” Axelrod continued, “he has to respond to the continuing pressures that people feel.... It’s a very, very challenging line to walk.”
Voters tend to focus more on fundamentals like the economy as an election nears, and if growth continues, even modestly, it could boost Obama from his current standing in the polls and lift Democrats along with him.
If not, there is at least a smidgen of good news for Democrats: Going back to 1962, presidents with a sub-50% approval rating have lost an average of 44 House seats in midterm elections, according to data compiled by Republican pollster Bill McInturff. But even if Obama’s job approval numbers fail to climb, it is highly unlikely that many seats will shift in either direction this November.
That has nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with politics: a lack of competitive House seats, which only heightens the stakes in the fight for control of the Senate, where the Democratic edge is marginal at best.