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This week, President Barack Obama’s approval rating jumped above 50 percent for the first time in 18 months — a huge milestone for a president whose rating has been around 42 percent for most of his second term. Moreover, this jump occurred before his State of the Union address, which has typically been accompanied by a bump in approval ratings anyway.

At the end of this week, we could be looking at an approval rating of anywhere between 52 and 55 percent. This relative popularity for the president comes at an interesting time.

In November, the Republicans easily retained their majority in the House and emphatically retook the Senate. At the time, it seemed that the tide was turning against the president, and turning fast. The country had just made a strong statement against the president and his party, signaling a break away from the president and the liberal policies that he espoused during his term.

And yet, somehow, here we are in January with his approval rating at 50 percent and rising. With this apparent divergence between the political climate of the country and the president’s approval rating, it is important that we examine what the presidential approval rating actually means.

In many cases, the rating has nothing to do with the president’s policies or legislative success. Rather, the essential factors that compose a presidential approval rating are often events or circumstances that are outside of the president’s control. For example, immediately following Sept. 11, President George W. Bush’s approval rating soared to an astronomical 92 percent, the highest since FDR.

Now, obviously, it was not the policies of President Bush that caused his popularity to rise so rapidly. Rather, President Bush was the beneficiary of the tragedy that was completely outside of his control.

While President’s Obama recent rise in popularity is not nearly as extreme as Bush’s, the same themes remain. The American economy is on the rise. Jobs have been increasing at a favorable rate, while unemployment is declining. And it does not come as a surprise that the president’s approval rating has risen in accordance with this rising economy.

Now, while the president is quick to take credit for the improved economy, even the staunchest Democrat would not argue that the president is entitled to take a substantial amount of credit for the country’s current economic prospects. Much of our economic activity, in good times and bad, is far outside of the president’s control. Yet, when the country is doing well, the people look to the president as the source of the progress, whether that assumption is true or not.

This is not by any means an indictment of President Obama, but rather an indictment of today’s political climate in which misconceptions of the power of the president are common.

The country looks to the president as its savior during triumphs and as its villain during hard times. It is for this reason that the presidential approval rating is such a dubious statistic.

As history will show, it is not by any means a measure of presidential accomplishment. In reality, it is a measure of how the country is doing. Most Americans believe that how the country is doing and how the president is doing are synonymous.

Yet, in many issues facing this country, and especially in the economy, the president does not have tremendous impact. We should realize as a country that we are composed of a lot more than our  president, and ultimately that it is the people and the government together who produce the good times and the bad.

 

Alexander Garber is a junior in the College.

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