Forecasts of Obama Rebound a Bit Premature

by Stuart Rothenberg February 1, 2011 · 8:35 AM EST

President Barack Obama’s standing is too often being treated as the political equivalent of a bull market. His approval is rising. He is receiving praise for his rhetoric and strategic positioning. He has drawn kudos for personnel changes. Suddenly, we are told, his political future is bright.

But anyone who follows the stock market knows that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a bull market and a bear market rally.

In the short term, both markets engender optimism. Stocks — like political reputations — appreciate quickly.

But over the longer term, the two market behaviors are very different. A bear market rally looks deceptively like a fundamental change in sentiment, but it isn’t, and the bear returns sooner rather than later.

Obama has taken advantage of the pause in partisanship that the Tucson, Ariz., shootings afforded him. He still gives a terrific speech, and, as his State of the Union speech demonstrated, he seems to have found the sweet spot in American politics: Play to the middle, talk about unity and bipartisanship, but avoid specifics and tough political choices.

Yes, the public’s mood has started to brighten of late, but if Congress and the White House get back to fighting about issues (as they will) and Americans grow grouchy again about unemployment, another round of pessimism could ensue. And with it could go the president’s recent rally in the polls and among the chattering class.

There is no disputing that public sentiment about the president’s standing and even the direction of the country has turned more bullish.

Obama’s job rating is up to 53 percent in the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, conducted Jan. 13-17, and it’s even higher, 55 percent, in a CNN survey. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey shows that 35 percent of respondents said the country was headed “in the right direction,” up from 28 percent in December and at its highest since October 2009.

And as Huffington Post pollster Mark Blumenthal points out, consumer confidence seems to have ticked up.

The combination of the lame-duck session’s developments, Obama’s comments after Tucson and the change in the president’s style — both his support for extending the Bush tax cuts and his comments about being more business-friendly and working with Republicans — certainly have altered the public’s view of him.

Only 45 percent of those polled say Obama is “very liberal” or “somewhat liberal,” down from 55 percent in January 2010 and 59 percent in April 2009. Four out of 10 Americans now view the president as a moderate.

Not surprisingly, given those data, a solid majority of Americans, 55 percent, say that the Obama will “strike the right balance in dealing with Republicans in Congress,” while an identical percentage fear that Congressional Republicans will be too inflexible in dealing with him.

This bull market optimism shows up in another NBC News/Wall Street Journal question. A majority of those polled, 53 percent, say that over the next five years “things in the United States” will get better, while only 21 percent say that they will get worse.

But other questions in the same survey uncover a deep-seated concern about the future.

A majority of Americans, 54 percent, still say that America “is in a state of decline,” though that number is down dramatically from late August, when 65 percent held that view.

When asked for a word or phrase to describe how they feel about where the country is headed over the next 12 months, 35 percent offer what pollsters Peter Hart (D) and Bill McInturff (R) describe as “positive words and phrases,” while 47 percent offer “negative words and phrases.”

And, when Americans are asked which country “will be the world’s leading nation” 20 years from now, 38 percent say China, while 35 percent say the United States, a significant shift from sentiment in the 1990s.

The overall picture, then, is a public that is more hopeful about the near term and more favorably inclined toward the president than it was just a few months ago, but also one with serious concerns about the future.

We have been in an extremely atypical political environment since the Tucson shootings. In some respects, it resembles the period immediately after the 9/11 tragedy. Many Americans aren’t thinking about politics the way they normally do. They have rallied around the president, who serves as a national symbol, not a partisan leader.

But the chasm between Congressional Republicans and Democrats is as wide as it has ever been. The pressures of a presidential race are likely to lead to sharp partisan contrasts rather than the blurring of differences. And the media — both the cable networks and the mainstream press — make their living off fights and attacks, not hugs and kisses.

Obama may well have turned the corner. His numbers may hold or improve, especially if unemployment starts to inch down or a foreign policy crisis unites the country further. But it’s far too soon to start predicting his re-election.

When the bubble we are now in pops, future events — unemployment numbers, foreign policy developments and impossible-to-predict news stories — will determine whether we are witnessing merely a bear market rally for the president or a full-blown turnaround for Obama and the country. Until then, caution is advisable.