Ethics & Public Policy Center

Obama's Summer of Discontent

Published in Commentry Web Exclusive on July 17, 2009



President Obama remains in a fairly strong — but no longer commanding — political position. The RCP poll average of Obama's job approval rating is 56 percent. But if one carefully tracks the evolution of public sentiment since Obama assumed office, one would notice several trends — nascent but discernible — that should concern Obama and encourage conservatives.

The first has to do with the basic philosophical orientation of Americans. A recent Gallup poll found 40 percent of Americans described their political views as conservative, while only 21 percent as liberal. Gallup also found that Americans, by a two-to-one margin, say their political views in recent years have become more conservative rather than more liberal. And a Pew survey released in May found that since the election, there has been “no consistent movement away from conservatism, nor a shift toward liberalism.”

What this means, I think, is that Obama's victory in 2008, while impressive, did not represent an ideological shift. If Obama were to succeed as president, his victory may lead to a greater popularity of the ideas he embodies. Or, if he fails, it may result in the opposite: a further discrediting of liberalism. For now, though, it's fair to say that Obama's win was based on two factors, in roughly equal measure: his personal appeal, impressive political talents, and ability to project an image at odds with his ideology, combined with a public disenchanted with the GOP. It was not the result of a resurgence in liberalism.

Second, Republicans — while still trailing Democrats in party identification by a wide margin and with their party's “brand” at its lowest popularity in decades — are gaining ground on the issues. According to a New York Times poll earlier this month, almost seven in ten people expressed “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of concern about the expanding role of the federal government under Obama. Scott Rasmussen's trust-on-issues polling, comparing Republicans and Democrats on ten issues, showed Democrats leading on all ten in October 2008.

But earlier this month, we have seen almost a complete reversal; Republicans were leading on eight. When it comes to party affiliation, Democrats have lost more support this year than Republicans (though they started from a higher base line). In addition, Republicans are closing the gap and, in some instances, pulling slightly ahead of Democrats in generic Congressional polls. And in two important governors' races this year, Bob McDonnell, a Republican, leads Creigh Deeds, a Democrat, in Virginia, while another Republican, Chris Christie, leads the incumbent Jon Corzine in New Jersey by around double digits.

Third, President Obama has lost noticeable altitude in the last month, particularly among independent voters. For example, the Diageo/Hotline Poll, conducted from July 9-13, found that the percentage of American voters who approve of the job Obama is doing has dropped nine points, from 65 percent in early June to 56 percent today. The decrease in Obama's job-approval ratings is being driven in part by a 15 point drop in support among independent voters — a finding that must be causing some alarm at the White House. (The poll also found that only 39 percent of voters are confident the stimulus plan will be successful in turning around the economy, a decrease of 13 percentage points from June.) A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that among independents, Obama's job-approval rating has fallen 15 points in the span of two months, to the mid-40's, with more than six in ten independents saying Obama is a liberal, which is clearly a source of concern to them.

In arguably the most important swing state in the presidential election, Ohio, Obama has a 49-44 percent approval rating — with only one in three independents in the Buckeye State approving of Obama's handling of the economy and only 38 percent approving of the job he is doing. And a recent Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll shows that 29 percent of the nation's voters strongly approve of the way Obama is performing his role as president, while 36 percent strongly disapprove. “Dark clouds are visible on the horizon,” is how William Galston, a top aide in the Clinton White House, put it when analyzing recent polling data.

These trends are now shaping the views of lawmakers. For example, we are seeing “Blue Dog” Democrats express increasing concern about Obama's agenda — and Representative Dan Boren, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, has now gone after Obama by name, saying:

Barack Obama is very unpopular. He got 34 percent of the vote statewide, and less in our district [ Oklahoma 's 2nd Congressional District]. If he were to run for re-election today, I bet it would be even worse. It would be a lot nicer if we had someone who was in the middle. Bill Clinton won our district. A lot of people don't remember that, but he, in 1996, carried this district. I think if you have someone who governs from the middle, who's pragmatic, who works with both parties. President Obama talks a lot about bipartisanship. If you look at some of the legislation, he may have one or two Republicans.

In sorting through all of this, it would be silly and wishful thinking on the part of Republicans to pretend that Obama is in free-fall. But it would be equally silly and demonstrative of wishful thinking on the part of Democrats to ignore the warning signs. Barack Obama is no longer sailing on a summer sea. A public that was strongly supportive of Obama has, in six months, become increasingly wary of and resistant to his policies. He is governing in a manner that is different, and more liberal, than they were led to expect. Obama's soothing words are beginning to fall a bit flat, as is his effort to blame everything on his predecessor. That worked for a season, but that season has come to an end. And Obama is increasingly beginning to sound (and spin) like a conventional politician.

Worst of all, in my estimation, Obama is prescribing exactly the wrong antidote for our ailing economy. I may be mistaken; if so, and if Obamaism is sound economics, he could turn out to be a political Colossus. But if I, along with others far more knowledgeable about economics than I am, are right, then the ripples we are seeing will soon become large breakers, ones that may well begin to wash away recent Democratic gains and, in the process, do enormous, and perhaps irreparable, damage to modern liberalism.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in  Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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