Obama's Poll Numbers: What it All Means

If you're a political junkie and you happened upon a few of the major opinion polls that were released Thursday, you might be a little confused.

Ipsos: "Obama's Approval Rating Holds Steady at 58%"

Gallup: "Obama Job Approval Edges Up to 56% - Rating up from administration low point of 52% early last week"

Quinnipiac: "Obama's Approval Drops To 50 Percent, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds"

Naturally, anyone would be confused after seeing these three headlines.

Is President Obama in huge political trouble? Or do a majority of Americans approve of his job performance? Is he up, down or holding steady? What's the deal?

The simple answer is: who knows?

What we do know is that the Ipsos and Gallup polls are in line with other recent polls - including the CBS News/New York Times poll from last week - which show his approval rating hovering in the mid-to-high 50s.

Maybe, perhaps, Quinnipiac is onto something? It's worth watching to see if other polls start to show a significant downward trend. This could be the first indicator of Mr. Obama really sinking. Then again, it's as important to remember that it could simply be just an anomaly, however.

So, before buying into the overexcited analysis of specific polls and the resulting predictions of what will happen down the road because of said poll, it should be understood that drawing any larger conclusions, especially about the future, based on any single poll, is pure speculation, plain and simple.

Politics Daily's Walter Shapiro recently put it perfectly: "It is ludicrous to argue that polls taken during the first summer of a new presidency are an infallible predictor of anything. Like the stock market, political numbers fluctuate. In truth, most individual surveys are perishable – seeming wizardly windows into the future that are seer today and gone tomorrow. But the weight of polling over a period of months does help to illuminate larger political trends."

During last year's political campaigns, some poll watchers got into the habit of averaging polls together in an attempt to get a better feeling of how candidates were doing. Pollsters cringe at this, mainly because it's a true mixture of apples and oranges: mixing different methodologies and lumping reputable and less-than-reputable polls together. To the average political watcher, though, it helped give a general sense of where candidates stood in the eyes of voters.

Without actually pulling out the calculator, trends are visible by simply looking at various polls over the course of time - especially highly-reputable polls.

And some of those trends can be found by digging a bit deeper into the specific questions asked in these polls.

Take health care, for instance: as the debate has heated up in recent weeks -- and Democrats and the president have had to play defense on the issue -- his numbers have consistently softened.

His approval rating on his handling of health care reform hovers in the low-to-mid 40s (39 percent in today's Quinnipiac poll), steadily dropping from the high-40s to low-50s just a couple of months ago.

Same goes for the economy: in April and May he was in the high-50s to low-60s; now he's consistently polling 10 points less than that.

Do you want real proof that these numbers are evidence of a trend? Simply check out what the president has been saying and doing recently.

Week of July 20: President Obama held health care-related events Monday-Thursday, and his weekly address on Saturday was on health care.

Week of July 27: President Obama held health care-related events Tuesday and Wednesday and an economy-related event on Friday. His weekly address on Saturday was about the economy.

The moral of the story: any given political poll is just a small part of the vista. Multiple polls over the course of time, evidenced by the reaction of the polls' subjects, is the best way to judge where politicians stand in the eyes of voters.

Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' Political Director. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.

  • Steve Chaggaris

    Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' senior political editor.