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Obama's Challenge: Higher Likability Than Approval

Obama's Challenge: Higher Likability Than Approval

A Gallup editors' review of key findings about the incumbent president

PRINCETON, NJ -- As U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to accept the Democratic Party's presidential nomination for a second time, his personal favorability ratings remain above the 50% mark, while his job approval ratings are below that, as they have been for most of the last two years.

President Obama Job Approval Ratings vs. Favorable Ratings, 2011-2012

Although such a gap in favorable vs. approval ratings is typical for presidents, the fact that Obama's favorable ratings are just above -- and his approval rating just below -- the 50% mark makes his re-election prospects uncertain. Obama has maintained a slim one-percentage-point advantage, 47% to 46%, over Mitt Romney in registered voters' presidential preferences for the last week of Gallup Daily tracking.

Obama's image is not as positive as it was in 2008, when his favorable rating was consistently above 60% from mid-June through the election. However, his 2008 ratings were well above the average for presidential candidates, which is typically in the 50% range. And Obama has maintained higher favorable ratings than Republican opponent Romney throughout the 2012 campaign.

Favorable Ratings of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, December 2011-August 2012

That is significant because the better-liked candidate has won each election since 1992, when Gallup began measuring favorable ratings in the current format. Obama's likability edge is further apparent in that, by 54% to 31%, Americans say Obama rather than Romney is the more likable candidate.

Prior to the Republican convention, an Aug. 20-22 USA Today/Gallup poll showed Obama leading Romney on five character dimensions in addition to likability, including caring about people's needs, being honest and trustworthy, being willing to stand up to special interests, being a strong and decisive leader, and ability to work well with both parties in Washington to get things done. Romney's best rating was for being able to effectively manage the government, on which he essentially tied Obama. It is possible that Americans' perceptions of the candidates on these character dimensions changed after the Republican convention, and may change further after the Democratic convention.

Obama's Achilles' Heel Could Be the Economy

The same USA Today/Gallup pre-conventions poll highlights perhaps Obama's biggest weakness heading into the election -- the state of the economy and his perceived handling of it.

In the poll, Americans said Romney was better equipped to handle the economy and the federal budget deficit. At the same time, they regarded Obama as better able than Romney to handle five of seven issues tested, including foreign affairs, energy, Medicare, taxes, and healthcare. As such, Obama has a strong position on a number of key issues in the campaign but a weak position on the issue Americans say is most important to their vote.

One of the reasons Americans might perceive Romney as the better economic steward is because they generally think President Obama is doing a poor job of handling the economy -- 36% approve and 60% disapprove of his handling of that issue.

Even though Americans are disappointed in Obama's handling of the economy, they may cut him some slack when rendering a final judgment because more Americans continue to blame George W. Bush than Obama for the nation's economic problems. Obama will likely try to make the case to voters that the state of the economy when he took office should be factored into their judgments on how he has handled the economy.

Obama's Job Approval Below Historical Safety Zone

The nation's economic struggles, Americans' lack of confidence in the economy, and their poor ratings of Obama's handling of the economy have no doubt helped keep his job approval rating in the mid-40% range, well below Gallup's historical average of 54% for presidents since World War II. Specifically, he averaged 44% job approval last week, though that number has come up slightly to 47% in the latest Gallup three-day rolling average.

Historically, incumbent presidents since Dwight Eisenhower who have been above 50% in the final Gallup poll before the election have won re-election easily. George W. Bush was narrowly re-elected in 2004 when he had a 48% job approval rating at the time of the election, while Gerald Ford was narrowly defeated in 1976 when his last approval rating before the election was 45%. The other incumbent presidents who were defeated -- Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush -- had pre-election approval ratings below 40%.

Obama is thus not in as bad a position as Carter and the elder Bush, but he can hardly be considered a safe bet for re-election with his approval ratings where they are currently.


Obama seems better positioned than Romney in Americans' comparative evaluations of the two on a variety of dimensions, including basic likability, character, and ability to handle most issues. The challenge for Obama is that one of the two areas in which he is weakest -- perceptions of his ability to handle the economy -- could be the most consequential.

To date, his weakness on the economy has not been enough to put him into a trailing position versus Romney in voter preferences, although it has made the race highly competitive. Importantly, Obama's standing against Romney has not worsened after the Republican convention. Now, Obama gets a chance to put forth a more positive message about his handling of the economy and the presidency more generally. By next week, it will be evident whether Obama was able to move voter preferences more in his direction.

Survey Methods

Gallup surveys 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, every day and conducts additional surveys. In most cases, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2 to ±4 percentage points. For detailed survey methods on any results reported here, please visit the original story.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

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