Suppose everything we think we know about the president’s political position is wrong? That’s what I think became clear this week.
You know the conventional wisdom. It is that unemployment ticking down, plus the economy inching back, plus the power of the presidency to affect events, equal a likely Obama victory in 2012. Smart people, especially Republicans, believe this. But how about this for a thought: It’s not true. It’s all wrong. Barack Obama can be taken, and his adversaries haven’t even noticed. In fact, he will likely lose in 2012. Only one thing can save him. More on that further down.
Let’s start with the immediate and go to the overarching. The president is immersed in another stressed and unsuccessful spring after a series of losing seasons. Internationally, he’s involved in a confused effort that involves bombing Libyan government troops and sometimes their rebel opponents, leaving the latter scattered and scurrying. Responsibility to protect is looking like tendency to deflect. Domestically, the president’s opponents seized the high ground on the great issue of the day, spending and debt, and held it after the president’s speech this week. In last week’s budget duel, the president was outgunned by Republicans in the House and outclassed by Paul Ryan, who offered seriousness and substance as a unique approach to solving our fiscal problems.
In this week’s polls: An Ipsos survey says 69% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, up five points since March. Zogby has only 38% of national respondents saying Mr. Obama deserves re-election, with 55% wanting someone new. Mr. Obama carried Pennsylvania in 2008 by double digits; a poll there this week shows only 42% approving his leadership, with 52% disapproving. Gallup had the president’s support slipping among blacks and Hispanics, with the latter’s numbers dramatic: 73% supported him when he was inaugurated, 54% do now. Support among whites on Inauguration Day was 60%. Now it is 39%.
We’re all so used to reporting the general trend of these polls that we fail to see their significance: The more that people experience his leadership, the less they like his leadership. There’s no real reason to think upticks in this direction or that will seriously change this. Another way to say it is that there have been upticks that might have benefited the president, and so far they haven’t.
At this point everyone mentions Mr. Obama’s personal approval numbers, which are consistently higher than his leadership numbers. The RealClearPolitics average puts his personal approval at 47.6%, which doesn’t sound bad. But let me offer a hunch based on conversations with people from many walks of life and all regions the past 18 months. The president’s personal numbers are probably lower than the polls report. Not that the polls are dishonest, but the American people don’t want to not like Mr. Obama. They don’t want to tell a young pollster that hey don’t like a man they elected two years ago, with excitement and hope, by a margin of 9.5 million votes. There are two things I have never heard, not once, in the past year: “I love this guy—I love Obama,” and “If only John McCain were president, everything would be better.”
I suspect, and it’s only a suspicion, that there’s a degree to which people tell pollsters they like Mr. Obama to take the sting out of the fact that they just told the pollster they don’t approve of his leadership.
We all get stuck in the day-to-day and lose sight of the overarching, but the overarching fact of Mr. Obama’s presidency is that he made a bad impression his first years in office and has never turned that impression around. He spent his first 14 months moving on what he was thinking about—health care—and not what the public was thinking about—the economic crash, jobs, spending. He seemed not to be thinking like everyone else, which underscored the idea that he was unresponsive to the crises they were seeing. It’s hard to get past that.
His speech this week brought together all the strands of his flawed leadership. It was at moments clever, but merely clever, not up to the needs of the moment—and cleverness in a time of crisis comes as an affront. The speech seemed oblivious to recent history, as if the president had just discovered something no one knows about, a problem with spending, and has decided to alert us to the danger. He said other politicians attempt to cut by focusing on “waste and abuse,” but he knows the real secret: The problem is entitlement spending. But addressing entitlements is all anyone serious has been talking about for years; it’s what the Ryan plan is all about!
The speech was intellectually incoherent. An administration that spent two years saying, essentially, that high spending is good is suddenly insisting high spending is catastrophic. The president appealed for bipartisan efforts but his manner and approach leave his appeals sounding like diktats. His attempts to seem above the fray leave him seeming distanced and unwilling to risk anything.
Most important, the speech signaled that the White House, after all this time, sees the question of spending as a partisan tool, a weapon to be deployed in an election, and not an actual crisis. This is disrespectful toward citizens who feel honest alarm.
Because of these flaws, the speech will have no afterlife, and a major speech with no afterlife might as well not have been given.
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You would think Democratic professionals, who read the same numbers Republicans do and pick up similar trends, would be hanging their heads in despair.
They are not. They have hope. Their hope is that Republicans in the early caucus and primary states will go crazy. They hope the GOP will nominate for the presidency someone strange, extreme or barely qualified. They hope that in a mood of antic cultural pique, or in a great acting out of disdain for elites, or to annoy the mainstream media, Republican voters will raise high candidates who are unacceptable to everyone else. Everyone else of course being the great and vital center, which hires and fires presidents. The Democrats’ hope is that centrists will look at the Republican nominee and, holding their nose, choose the devil they know. Especially if the one they don’t know seems to have little horns under his hair.
Republicans voting in recent presidential primaries have tended to pick the candidates who are viewed as the moderate in the race—Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, John McCain in 2008. But in truth, there are some pretty antic candidates out there this year.
The great question of the coming year is not, “Will Obama reignite his base?” or, “Will the Democrats outraise and outspend the GOP?” It is: Will the GOP be serious? Will Republicans be equal to their history, their tradition and the moment? If they are—if they recruit and support candidates who can speak to the entire country, who have serious experience and accomplishments, who are grounded and credible, then they will win centrist support. And with it they will likely win the thing without which they cannot achieve the big changes they seek, and that is the presidency.