What Barack Obama’s Approval Rating Means for the Democratic Nominee in Campaign 2016

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 16

By CAROL E. LEE – – – –

The recent rise in President Barack Obama’s approval rating could help the chances of a Democrat winning the White House in November, but there are risks if the party’s nominee clings too closely to his legacy.

For the first time in three years Mr. Obama’s daily approval rating in the Gallup poll rose above 50%. That’s a significant shift from its low of 38% in the fall of 2014 and higher than the 47% average for presidents at this point in their final year in office. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted earlier this month, the president’s approval rating was 49%, up from a low of 40% in fall 2014.

The reason Mr. Obama appears to be faring so well among Americans is unclear, but it could be the confluence of several factors, said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster: the economy, the lack of bruising fights between the White House and Congress and the discord in the GOP.

“It’s probably some combination of those things,” Ms. Greenberg said.

On the surface that would seem to bode well for the Democratic nominee, which the White House expects to be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and it’s better than the alternative, she said. But there are risks, too.

“The danger for her is if she were to decide that she’s running on Obama’s third term and his strong economy is it looks past how people feel day-to-day about their own personal financial situation,” Ms. Greenberg said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest seized on the idea that Mr. Obama is benefitting from a fractured Republican Party.

“It certainly is possible that in comparison to some of the Republican candidates, that President Obama starts to look pretty good,” Mr. Earnest quipped Thursday when asked about the Gallup poll. “I might be biased in making that judgment, but it’s possible that that individual poll might be some evidence of that.”

He also made the case that Mr. Obama has pushed an agenda that’s seen some success, such as a nuclear agreement with Iran and an international climate agreement.

The dynamic between the sitting president and his party’s nominee is set to be dramatically different than the last time there was an open election for the presidency in both parties, should Mr. Obama’s current approval rating remain. In March 2008, President George W. Bush’s Gallup approval rating was 32%, making him a rarity on the campaign trail.

Yet Mr. Obama’s approval rating is lower than President Bill Clinton’s was at this time in 2000, when no incumbent was seeking the White House. Mr. Clinton’s approval rating was 60%, according to Gallup. But that didn’t help the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, win the White House. Mr. Gore also decided to keep a distance from Mr. Clinton on the campaign trail.

In contrast, Mr. Obama is expected to campaign heavily for the Democratic nominee. The president last week described his role as party unifier after a tougher-than-expected primary fight between Mrs. Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“I think it’s useful that we’ve had a vigorous debate among two good people who care deeply about our country and who have fought hard on behalf of working people in this country for a long time,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference last week. “And my most important role will be to make sure that after primaries [are] done I’m bringing everybody together so that we focus on winning the general election.”

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