The Difference a Year Can Make

As another year of the Obama presidency draws to a close, now is as good a time as any to take stock of where things stand in relation to where they were a year ago. And if, as Harold Wilson (Great Britain’s Prime Minister in the 1960s and 70s) said, “A week is a long time in politics,” a year is an eternity. There have been many changes over the past year, beginning with the Benghazi hearings last January wherein Hillary Clinton, when pressed about the administration’s insistence that the consulate attacks were not a coordinated planned act, but rather a spontaneous response to a video, gave the GOP some of the red meat they were looking for. “Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans?” Clinton said. “What difference — at this point — what difference does it make?”

Then, later in the year, new troubling information about the attacks was revealed at a May congressional hearing by Ambassador Gregory Hicks. At the same time, the country learned of the IRS scandal, and that conservative groups were disproportionately targeted for scrutiny and made to answer invasive questions about their membership. To top that all off, Edward Snowden made off with a treasure trove of information about the NSA’s spying practices that was so vast it has yet to be published in its entirety.

The president and his agenda seemed ready for a rebound, when Republicans actually followed through on Senator Ted Cruz’s threat to shut down the government over defunding or delaying Obamacare. The government was reopened on the president’s terms when a WSJ/NBC News poll found that the public overwhelmingly blamed the shutdown on Republicans, leaving many to wonder if the GOP just cost themselves control of the Congress in 2014.

But that all changed when attention turned to President Obama’s signature legislative achievement — Obamacare. From a website that didn’t work at all in October, to millions of people losing their existing coverage despite the president’s promises that that will not happen, Obamacare provided the cure for exactly one thing. The bad news for Democrats is that that one thing is the electoral prospects of the Republican Party.

For the purposes of this column, I went back and looked at polling data on three questions, using the Real Clear Politics Poll Average. I used President Obama’s approval rating, the Congressional Generic ballot question, and the popularity of Obamacare. With respect to the president’s approval rating, I also looked at polls that broke that down into two separate categories: job approval on the economy, and job approval on foreign policy. Here is what I found:

Beginning January 2013, President Obama came into his fifth year with 53.4% approving of the job he was doing, while 42.1% did not. He had just won reelection, and had gotten a tax increase out of the fiscal-cliff crisis. But those numbers did not hold. At this point, his approval rating has fallen 10.6 percentage points to 42.8% and his disapproval rating climbed 11.2 points to 53.3% — a turnaround of almost 22 points. The best single poll he currently is polling in is the Rasmussen poll, and that still has him 5 points underwater, at 47–52%, but that looks to be an outlier, as the other polls are more in line with the average.

On the economy, an NBC/WSJ poll from last January had him at 49–48% approval, yet that same pollster, when currently polling, gets a result of 39–58% (a 20-point swing), which is just about in line with the RCP Average of 39.6–56.5%. Likewise, on foreign policy, a CBS/NYT poll from last January had Obama at 49–36% approval, yet now it is dismal — 42–44% disapproval. That is a 15-point negative swing. The RCP average is at 42.4–49.2%, 5 points worse than the CBS/NYT poll.

The Obamacare polling is very interesting as well, as the ACA has never been in positive territory popularity-wise. As a matter of fact, the closest it ever came to being popular was right about election 2012 time, when 47.8% were opposed to it, with 42.4% approving of it. The January numbers of last year were slightly off that, with 48.5% opposed and 42.3% approving. Yet, with the problems becoming real and the Republicans’ warnings being fulfilled, this unpopular piece of law found a way to become less popular. The current polling average is at 39.8% approval, with 55.3% opposed to Obamacare. And while it gets worse than that, with the most recent CNN poll finding that only 35% approve while 62% oppose it, the worst poll of the bunch is the one most favorable. ABC/Washington Post poll has it at 45% approval (a gain of 2.7 points off the average a year ago), but at 51% against (2.5 points up from last year). As a matter of fact, out of the 24 polls taken in the last two months on this issue, only one doesn’t find a majority of Americans opposing the ACA — and that poll only had 27% supporting it.

But the poll most heartening for the GOP is the Generic Congressional Ballot. A year ago, Democrats held the advantage, 45.5% to 38.5%. But now, the advantage in the average is almost nonexistent, with Democrats ahead, 42.3–42.2%. While that may not seem that big a deal, consider this: A year before the GOP’s historic sweep of the House of Representatives, the Democrats had a full 6-point advantage, and still ended up losing as epically as they did. According to the Pew Research Center, Democrats only gain seats in the House if they lead the generic ballot question by more than seven points.

Considering all this, it is wise to remember those words of Harold Wilson, and what we added to them. And while looking at the difference between the realities today and what was a year ago should be inspiring to conservatives, there can still be much over the next 10 months that can change everything.