The debt ceiling fight from last summer did no one in Washington any favors. Least of all President Obama.
When Speaker of the House John Boehner declared in a CBS News interview that he had been able to extract 98 percent of what he wanted in the prolonged negotiations over raising the nation’s borrowing level, he wasn’t just declaring a legislative victory. President Obama’s approval had been dragged well into negative territory, and the whole thing had even damaged Obama’s vaunted favorability rating. The affair also brought Congress itself down to record approval lows, but there wasn’t much further to go.
Fast forward to April of 2012. Improvement in key economic metrics are having a big political impact, drops in the unemployment rate have made splashes in the media and the stock market has recovered to the level it was at before the Great Recession. And independent voters have started seeing a brighter economic picture.
For the last two years, Marist College Institute for Public Opinion has asked the following question in national polls: “When thinking about the U.S. economy, which statement comes closer to your view: ‘The worst is yet to come,’ or ‘The worst is behind us.’”
“This is all about perceptions,” Dr. Lee Miringoff, director of the Institute told TPM. “It’s a measurement of optimism, it’s measurement of the glass being half full or half empty.” Partisans have been remarkably consistent on the question. Democrats have always been more sunny on the country’s economic prospects while large majorities of Republicans have remained pessimistic, which makes sense. But independent voters, the most crucial voting bloc in any general election, have moved a great distance over the last year. Check out the chart below to see the shift.
Note that since the collapse of the stock market in fall of 2008, there have been points when independent voters have hoped the economy was improving. But the debt ceiling debacle did a number on that idea, and pessimism only subsided after economic growth was on the front page for a few months. “This is all about a sense of direction,” Miringoff said, pressing the point the movement upward, even if it was from a very low point, is most essential. In other words, the economic trajectory will be the driver of independent voters. “What happens in four months with these numbers is very important,” he said.
The political rewards may be already showing up — President Obama led Romney among independent voters by 15 points in CNN numbers from late March after splitting indies in Public Policy Polling (D), Fox News, Pew and Marist surveys in earlier in the month. But Obama has made similar gains in the past, only to see the split on indies to even out. When Romney’s unfavorable numbers first started to jump up in February, Obama began to take a much larger share of unaffiliated voters. When Romney strung together some victories, some of those came back.
Gallup’s numbers on economic confidence released on Tuesday backed up the Marist polling (Gallup defines their rating as an “average of two components of consumers’ psychology: Americans’ ratings of current economic conditions and their perceptions of whether the economy is getting better or getting worse.”) The polling organization showed its highest level of economic confidence during President Obama’s tenure, but also cautioned that the recovery is still very, very fragile:
Americans’ confidence in the U.S. economy is improving, with economic confidence having now increased for seven consecutive months. Increasing optimism about the unemployment picture is likely a strong driver of improving consumer expectations. Monday’s positive report about U.S. manufacturing could also help bolster confidence, as could Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke’s apparent support for continuing the Fed’s stimulative policies.
On the other hand, gas prices continue to go up. A key question is whether the U.S. economy can continue its modest economic recovery as gas prices approach the key psychological level of $4 a gallon and the July 2008 record price of $4.11. Further, as Bernanke noted last week, questions remain about the sustainability of declining unemployment without stronger overall economic growth.
Miringoff also flagged the unemployment rate as a crucial measure, and gas prices could have a strong effect politically. But any upward motion on the number of jobless Americans could have a drastic effect. “People don’t think we are out of the woods yet,” he said. “Things are pointing in the right direction on the economy but there’s no exclamation point.”
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.