Americans' approval of the job being done by President Barack Obama and the job being done by Congress have differed by about 27 percentage points on a month-by-month basis since early 2009 -- a difference that has been remarkably consistent across this time span.
Both of these approval measures have drifted downward since Obama took office. But they have gone down essentially in unison over time, with just a few differences on a monthly basis. The basic correlation coefficient between Obama’s job approval rating and Congress’ job approval rating at the monthly level since February 2009 is .90, which is very high.
What does this tell us? For one thing, it indicates that a tide that’s going out in a harbor lowers all ships -- so that even though the heights of the masts of two ships are different, they both are affected as both ships sink lower and lower with the outgoing tide. In other words, the same negative economic and political environmental forces that are affecting Obama’s approval rating appear to also be affecting Congress’ approval rating. The American public is not doing a lot of differentiating.
What are these forces? Well, the economy is certainly one of them, of course. So let’s add the economy into the picture:
There were, as you can see, some differences among these three measures in the first six months or so of Obama's first year in office. But since August of 2009, the correlation between economic conditions and Obama's approval rating has been fairly high -- about .74 according to my calculations. In other words, particularly in the last several months, Americans' rating of the economy, their rating of Obama, and their rating of Congress have all moved in rough lock step.
There was an upward bump in all three measures in May of this year, coinciding with the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals in Pakistan. This upward bump was evident in all three measures -- which is interesting in and of itself. Apparently the bin Laden incident was a temporary mood enhancer for the American public, and thus lifted up all three of these ships/measures. This reinforces the reality that Americans at this point are displacing their positive and negative feelings onto any measure we put in front of them.
Now, in the last several months, everything has slipped down. Americans are more negative about anything we put in front of them -- the economy, the president, and Congress.
The point here is that, whatever we want to call it, there is a negative mood abroad in the general American consciousness at this juncture in history, and this negative mood is affecting Americans' views in a very general way. Most political observers view the president’s job approval ratings and Congress' job approval ratings as separate entities, which they are. But they are both subject to the same types of overall political and economic forces. The president's job approval ratings on average are much higher than Congress' job approval ratings, but the ups and downs in both of these are moving in a remarkably similar pattern.
These facts of political life are relevant as President Obama prepares to make his speech to the nation about jobs Thursday night.
These data would suggest that it's going to be hard for Obama to move his approval numbers much with one single speech, unless it is such a powerful speech that it viscerally changes Americans' moods overnight. This is because Americans appear to be not so much evaluating Obama per se when we ask our approval/disapproval question, but rather responding to him in terms of their more general mood. And that mood is related to the economy, perhaps related to their views of the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the way Washington works in general, and perhaps related to other, unknown factors. One speech probably doesn't have much of a chance of changing that mood.
It's worth emphasizing that Americans were apparently quite negatively affected by the spectacle in Washington over the debt ceiling crisis in July and early August. (All of our measures skidded downward after these events). So in order to turn around his approval numbers, Obama may also have to convince the public that things are going to work smoother in Washington in the weeks and months ahead, a proposition which will immediately be rendered doubtful given the almost certain publicly negative reaction that Republican leaders will give Obama's proposals after his speech.
The path to higher ratings for Obama (and for Congress) most likely will need to be actual proof of a better economic situation, and actual proof that elected representatives in Washington are getting things done. None of this is likely to result from Thursday night's speech.