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Michael Barone: Pundits Gasp as Economy Dents Obama’s Poll Numbers

Considering the economy, gas prices and his policies, the president's ratings really aren't so surprising

You can almost hear the note of surprise in their voices when you read the Washington Post and New York Times reporters’ stories on their papers’ latest political polls.

Surprise! Just when they thought President Barack Obama was pulling ahead, with positive job ratings, and just after the mainstream media have been savaging Republicans for two words Rush Limbaugh uttered on his radio program, Obama’s numbers seem to be tanking.

Actually, the numbers are not so striking or so surprising. The media narrative for the past four weeks has been that the president’s job approval has been rising in response to good economic news.

But the economic news has not been all that striking. We had a quarter in which economic growth reached 2.8 percent. We’ve had two months with job growth of better than 200,000.

Peachy. But in 1983, the year before President Ronald Reagan’s re-election, the gross domestic product rose 8.9 percent not just for one quarter but over the whole year. There were two months when job growth was 729,000 and 660,000.

That’s the kind of economic recovery that enables an incumbent president’s campaign to run a credible “Morning in America” ad. If the Obama campaign ran one now, it would be fodder for Saturday Night Live and Jon Stewart.

Nor was the supposed spike in Obama’s job rating so high. In the RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls, it never got better than 49 percent approve, 47 percent disapprove.

Now the ABC/Washington Post poll has it at 46/50, and the CBS/NYT poll at 41/47. Rasmussen Reports tracking has it at 47/52.

That downtick is not huge, though it seems to be offsetting the February uptick. Some basic factors are still working for Obama. Americans want to think well of their presidents; this helped Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004. Many voters do not want to be seen as rejecting the first black president.

On the other hand, Obama’s major policies are unpopular. You can gauge that by the number of words devoted to the stimulus package in his last State of the Union: zero.

Or by the persistent unpopularity of Obamacare. Or by the fact that 50 percent in the ABC/WaPo poll strongly disapproved of his handling of the economy.

Or by the response to Democrats’ claims that Republicans were waging a “war on women” by opposing the administration’s mandate that religious-affiliated organizations’ insurance policies cover birth control.

The New York Times in its print article buried its own results, as blogger Mickey Kaus noted. Its poll showed women favored allowing religious organizations to opt out of such coverage by a 53 to 38 percent margin. The margin among men and women together was 57 to 36 percent.

Four dollar gas prices surely took a toll on the president’s numbers as well, despite his repeated boasts that domestic oil production is up.

Americans know the president cannot set the price at the pump. But they are also apparently aware that his administration shut down oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and has been slow-walking drilling permits, that it banned offshore drilling over other coasts and that it denied a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Keystone denial remains astonishing for reasons that, I suspect, any Democratic pollster would tell you if you could promise absolute confidentiality.

A February Pew poll showed a 42 to 15 percent margin for building the pipeline. The fact that Obama was lobbying Senate Democrats last week to block the pipeline and that all but three voted to do so won’t help the president or his party.

Last year, I described the Keystone decision as a “no-brainer.” It never occurred to me that Obama would decide to favor the rich environmentalists he encounters at fundraisers over the mass of the American people who want the Canadian oil and the construction jobs the pipeline would supply.

Obama’s February uptick and March downtick in the polls will probably not be the last fluctuation we will see in his political standing.

Opinion about Mitt Romney, who at this writing seems virtually certain to be the Republican nominee, could fluctuate even more. Events could shift opinion, too.

But some fundamentals are unlikely to change. Voters’ focus is on economic issues and on these most oppose the president’s policies. His media cheerleaders who thought his February numbers meant the election was over were fooling themselves.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelBarone.

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