Here’s some practical advice to those who didn’t like President Barack Obama’s swagger during his State of the Union address: Get used to it.
Economic indicators suggest he’s going to have even more to crow about in the months to come.
Obama taunted his Republican opponents last Tuesday night, reminding them in an off-the-cuff remark that he won both of his presidential runs and boasting about the suddenly booming economy: “At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious, that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years. This is good news, people.”
His cocky, colloquial cadence was a bit much, but it’s hard to deny Obama a victory lap now that Americans are optimistic about the economy after six years of misery. This isn’t necessarily the result of his policies – but neither were the six years in the doldrums his fault. This president, like all presidents, gets the blame when the economy is weak and the credit when it is strong.
In that sense, people may not appreciate the extent to which Obama is likely to be ascendant in his final two years in office. It happened rather suddenly in the past couple of months, but the lame-duck path Obama was on now looks more like Ronald Reagan’s in 1987 and 1988. If the economy continues on its current trajectory, as most expect, he’ll leave office a popular president and leave the 2016 Democratic nominee with a relatively easy path to victory.
This is less a matter of conjecture than of statistics. A president’s approval rating closely tracks consumer confidence, and consumer confidence has begun to explode. The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index, mired in the 60s, 70s and 80s during the bulk of Obama’s presidency, soared to 93.6 in December from 88.8 in November. It leaped again to 98.2 in January, its highest level in a decade.
“More consumers spontaneously cited increases in their household incomes in early January than any time in the past decade,” the survey found, “and more households reported unprompted references to favorable employment prospects as well as lower prices than at any other time in the more than the half-century history of the surveys.”
Obama’s approval rating had a corresponding jump, to 47 percent in January’s Pew Research Center poll from 42 percent in December. Pew polling expert Andy Kohut said that if the economy continues on its current trajectory, he expects Obama’s approval rating to rise above 50 percent – and stay there. Kohut thinks the ceiling for Obama’s approval is about 55 percent, because of the polarized electorate and because the lower middle class remains depressed. But even Reagan’s approval rating didn’t reliably exceed 50 percent until his last half year in office.
Obama has been buoyed by a huge increase in the percentage of Americans who think he made the economy better – 38 percent, up from 14 percent in 2009, according to Pew – even as his ratings on foreign policy slump.
The GOP-controlled Congress has seen no such gains – nor will it. Opinions about Congress aren’t tied to perceptions of the economy. This means Obama’s strength relative to Congress is likely to increase in the final quarter of his presidency. I argued in July that Obama might be emboldened and invigorated by a Republican-controlled Congress, and he seems to have been. He will be all the more so if his support soars while Congress remains south of 20 percent in public esteem.
Of course, there’s always the chance that war or some other crisis could override the rising economic confidence. Troubles in Iraq dragged down George W. Bush’s second-term approval ratings even though the economy was relatively strong until the 2008 collapse. Likewise, Obama was fairly popular in 2009 despite the bad economic numbers, because Americans blamed Bush for the economy’s crash.
Barring shocks and catastrophe, though, the rising confidence in the economy also bodes well for a win in 2016 by Hillary Clinton or another Democratic nominee. As a general rule, the party of the incumbent president will win an election if the Conference Board’s consumer confidence index is above 100. The index was at 92.6 in December, up from 44.9 in 2008 and 71.5 in 2012.
Barring the unforeseen, the index will soon rise above 100 and remain there for the rest of Obama’s term. His opponents may not think it fair, but the return of the American consumer’s long-suppressed optimism will keep a swagger in the presidential step.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.