Analysis

'Lame duck' U.S. President Barack Obama hits new high in popularity

In his last year in office, U.S. President Barack Obama may have less to offer Prime Minister Justin Trudeau than he once did. But the "bully pulpit" of the presidency retains a lot of power — particularly now that Obama's popularity is once again on the rise.

Justin Trudeau's Washington visit comes at a time when Obama may have more political capital to spend

For the first time in years, more Americans approve of President Barack Obama than disapprove. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in Washington, D.C., this week, meeting with an unpopular, lame duck American president who can't get anything through Congress.

That is how a cynic may look at things, at least.

In fact, while President Barack Obama is indeed in the last months of his presidency, his popularity is actually on the rise — and much greater than that of the U.S. Congress that tries to block him at every turn.

Trudeau's official visit includes a state dinner Thursday night. The Canadian prime minister has been feted by the American press, and some suggest that Obama may be hoping to have some of that glitter rub off on him.

But the American president may not be in need of such a popularity boost. In the last five polls conducted this month, Obama has averaged an approval rating of 49 per cent and a disapproval rating of 46 per cent.

This is the first time in almost three years that Obama's approval rating has been a net positive in RealClearPolitics's polling averages. His numbers only briefly moved into positive territory just before and after his re-election in 2012. Since then, his approval rating has primarily been in the 40 to 45 per cent range, with a majority of Americans disapproving of the job he was doing.

Perhaps — considering the raucous, and at times vulgar, nature of the Republican nomination race — Americans are starting to look at the man currently in the job in a newly positive light. Even on the Democratic side of the nomination process, front-runner Hillary Clinton is saddled with high unfavourability ratings, though not as high as those of the Republican favourite, Donald Trump.

Obama more popular than U.S. Congress

While Obama is indeed at the usual political disadvantage a president finds himself in with less than a year to go in his presidency, his lame duck status (which he technically won't have until his replacement is elected in November, though that hasn't stopped his critics from using the term) has been multiplied by the degree of partisanship and obstruction he has encountered in the U.S. Congress.

But the American people think little of the job that Congress is doing.

The latest RealClearPolitics averages show the approval rating of Congress to be just 12 per cent. Its disapproval rating stands at a staggering 79 per cent. This is not a new phenomenon. The relative halcyon days of an approval rating of over 20 per cent are nearly five years behind Congress.

So Obama may have a little political capital yet to spend with the "bully pulpit" of the presidency still at his disposal.

He is certainly on track to leave office with much more popularity than his predecessor did. When George W. Bush left the job in January 2009, his average approval rating was just 29 per cent (it was 32 per cent at this time in 2008).

Both Obama and Bush, however, are beat by Bill Clinton. His approval rating stood at around 66 per cent when he handed the reins to George W. in 2001.

But this is not to say that all is well in the United States in the final months of the Obama administration. According to the latest poll averages, only 28 per cent of Americans think the country is heading in the right direction.

Maybe, after seeing Canada showered with praise this week, they will consider heading north.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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