The Beltway media is sounding the alarm again over President Barack Obama’s approval ratings.

Obama is down four points in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll versus a month ago, with 47 percent approving of his job performance and 50 percent disapproving. He’s also under water in the latest Gallup daily tracking poll, with 43 percent giving him the thumbs up and 49 percent the thumbs down. The latest CBS/New York Times poll has Obama 1 percentage point into positive territory, with 46 percent approving of his job performance and 45 disapproving, with the positive number down 3 points from last month.

Such statistics provoke lots of discussion on cable news and on the Internet about Obama’s sinking prospects as president, and what, if anything, the president can do to turn things around before an election that’s a year and a half (and an awful lot of polls) away.

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As political scientists like Brendan Nyhan would tell you, presidential approval ratings rarely respond in a significant way to micro events (i.e. an individual stump speech, or a policy announcement.) They tend to track macro conditions: the state of the overall economy, the unemployment rate, the nation being at war (or peace), and to a remarkable extent: the price of gasoline.

In fact, the polling suggests high gas prices, which Americans predict will only get higher, combined with public disgust over the toxic political atmosphere in Washington, are likely the main culprits contributing to a general sense of pessimism that’s holding down approval ratings from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill.

No president can single-handedly bring down the price of gas, and Republicans are in no mood to hold hands, so Obama might be stuck with middling approval ratings for a while.

The question is, are Obama’s “so-so” poll numbers a threat to his re-election.

Signs point to “no.”
Polls versus “the re-elect”

Obama’s approval rating has averaged 46.7 percent in the Gallup tracking poll in his 9th quarter in office, putting him well below Eisenhower (70 percent) or Kennedy (67.7) but ahead of both Bill Clinton (45.7 percent) and Ronald Reagan (38.8 percent) at this point in their presidencies.

George W. Bush averaged 63.3 percent at this point in his presidency, but in April 2003, America was one month into the invasion of Iraq, and the “wartime president” was settling down from stratospheric approval ratings after 9/11.

In his 9th quarter, George H.W. Bush was sitting on an 82.7 percent Gallup average following the quick U.S. victory in the first Gulf War, and we all know how well that correlated to his re-election prospects in 1992.

Remarkably stable

When one looks at the sheer volume of polls compared to his predecessors: 89 Gallup tracking polls between January 20 and April 19th, versus 15 for George W. Bush in his ninth quarter, 12 for the first President Bush, 6 for Clinton, 5 for Reagan, and just 3 apiece for Kennedy and Nixon, Barack Obama might just be the most over-polled president in U.S. history.

And while the volatility of those polls tends to drive the high drama of the news cycle, the truth is, Obama’s numbers have been remarkably stable given the relatively slow economic recovery, and the fact that there is no well known Republican figure in Washington for Americans to compare him to.

Most voters still don’t know who House Speaker John Boehner or Paul Ryan are (though in the case of Ryan, whose plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program passed the House this week, Democrats plan to try and change that.) And the GOP’s leading public voices have defaulted to non-Beltway media personalities like Sarah Palin or lately, Donald Trump.

Most of Obama’s month-to-month declines, including his 4-point “plunge” in the ABC/Washington Post poll, from 51 percent approval in March to 47 percent or his 3-point slide in the CBS/New York Times poll, are within the margin of error.

Obama came into office with approval ratings hovering around 70 percent; numbers that were bound to fall as the president and Congress fought to wrestle the country back from a deep recession by passing a massive, but contentious stimulus bill, and took on controversial issues like the automobile bailout, and health care reform.

Yet, Obama is down just six point from where he was in the ABC/Washington Post poll the month he signed the health care bill in March 2010, in a poll with a consistent 3.5 percent margin of error. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who strongly approve or strongly disapprove of Obama’s job performance has barely budged since January 2010.

And if the president’s approval numbers are bad, the numbers for Congress are abysmal — just 17 percent of Americans approve of the job they’re doing, according to Gallup.

Still, a decline is a decline, and you can be sure the White House is pouring over the same polls the media obsess over.

What’s clear is that Obama’s numbers are being weighed down by economic insecurity, rising prices, particularly at the pump, and a continued, deep pessimism about the economy.

Reversing that sense of economic gloom is the key to better polling for the president. One sign the White House knows that? The president has tasked the attorney general to go after potential “fraud and manipulation” in…gas prices.