Why the President’s Approval Rating Matters

Oct 16 2011

To most of us, the President’s approval rating equates to his likelihood of being re-elected, or his party retaining control of the executive branch.  Indeed, the media tends to push this view and seems to especially enjoy playing out various scenarios of election-day-magedon.  The more astute might equate approval rating with political capital and ability to push his agenda on a macro scale.  While not immediately obvious, there is a more nuanced consequence to the President’s approval rating particular to Members of Congress.

The leverage a Member has to negotiate or flat-out defy the President’s agenda is directly affected by the popularity of the President in that Member’s district.  If the Member’s approval rating is greater than that of the President’s, then the Member has less incentive to comply with requests from the Executive Branch.  This applies to both parties.  For example, say a moderate Democrat (might be hard to find one these days) who is popular in her own district is facing a vote on Obama’s jobs bill (or part of it, as will be more likely at this point).  If Obama  is popular in her district as well, she will feel pressure to support the bill.  Likewise, a Republican in a swing district might feel it necessary to drag his feet in following his party’s leadership in denouncing it.  If Obama has low approval ratings in those districts, the Dem might look for ways to temper the bill while the Republican will have more freedom to publicly criticize it, should they so desire.

This effect is greater, in either direction, when the President will be on the ticket in the approaching election.  Down ticket campaigns (i.e. Congressional campaigns) will concern themselves with the President’s rating and either distance themselves from or tie themselves to the President.  Of course, there will be exceptions as there are many forces in play in any campaign, but consider this one of those forces.

Consequently, the success of the Obama administration to push legislation through Congress over the next 13 months will depend on his approval rating relative to those of Members of Congress.  And that’s why he is campaigning now, not just for re-election, but so that Members of Congress are more likely to warm to his policy agenda.  Think thumb-screws.  Any Member who is looking at an approval rating less than that of the President’s in their own district might be inclined to find more ways agree with him.

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