The Incredibly Shrinking President

The Incredibly Shrinking President

Well, that didn’t take long.

Just four months after his solid re-election win, and just two months after his very partisan inaugural speech, Barack Obama’s standing with the American people has taken a significant hit.  With a few exceptions such as Hollywood, Manhattan, and most of the nation’s media, the man hailed in January as a political colossus has fallen prey to political gravity and come back from the political heavens to earth.

According to the McClatchy-Marist Poll, Obama’s approval rating dropped to 45%, with 48% disapproving.  This is the first time he’s been upside down in the Marist Poll since November 2011.  While the ABC News-Washington Post poll is not as problematic for the President, his numbers have dropped to 50% approve/46% disapprove from a 55%-41% score just two months ago.  Tellingly, the intensity gap has widened to just 29% strongly approve and 36% strongly disapprove.

Meanwhile, the Real Clear Politics average has dropped to 48.5% approve/47.3% disapprove (as of March 20th).  Obama’s recent high watermark was 53.8% approve/41.8% disapprove as recently as December 21, 2012 – nearly a net ten point drop.  (By the way, a 54%-42% number doesn’t translate to the adulation that Obama was receiving at that point, but that’s our fault for letting the Democrats own and run nearly all of the media outlets.)

And further examination of the ABC News/Post poll highlights deeper troubles for the President’s standing.  Despite the recent run-up in the financial markets, Obama’s approval rating on the economy has dropped to 44% approve/52% disapprove, a net negative shift of eleven points since mid-January.

Obama is in more trouble over spending.  As poorly perceived as Republicans are right now, 44% trust Republicans more to find “the right balance between cutting government spending that is not needed and continuing government spending that is needed,” compared to 43% who trust Obama more.

Republicans in Congress only have a 24% approval rating (how much of that is driven by a sense Republicans are being too conservative and how much by a sense that they are not conservative enough is tough to measure, but clearly there is some of both), and yet Obama only has a 44%-40% trust advantage on handling the economy.

What Does This Drop in Obama’s Numbers Mean?

That’s difficult to say.  Let’s state the obvious first.  This is a President whose approval rating trades within a pretty small range.  Putting aside the honeymoon period of the first six months of any administration, taking the ABC News/Post polls, Obama’s highest approval rating was only 59% in July 2009.  However, Obama’s low point has only been 42% approval in October 2011.  His strong support among minority voters, particularly African Americans, always gives Obama a relatively high floor.  Given his understandably rock star status among minorities, barring a total collapse of his presidency, it is very likely Obama will never drop below 40% approval.

So, there should be no expectation that Obama’s numbers are on their way to cratering.  There simply is a point below which he cannot go.  However, a 50% and below approval rating is much more problematic for the President and his team.  After his re-election, the White House plotted a course for war against Republicans – assuming that his standing pitted against the unpopular GOP Congress means that he wins in the long run, with Nancy Pelosi back in 2015 as Speaker.  Parity with the GOP on key issues, however, means Obama is no longer dealing from unchallenged strength.

So, Why Is Obama’s Presidential Standing Shrinking?

Without open-ended questions on the surveys, this is the part of the posting where I go from political analysis to op-ed opinions.  But it seems to me that there are a number of factors impacting the President’s standing with the electorate:

1.    Obama’s Chicken Little act on the sequester not only wasn’t credible, but also made him look non-presidential.

The President gave speeches saying the sky would fall if the sequester was not averted.  That turned out not to be anywhere close to reality.  The fact that Obama waited to sound the alarm until the final days made his sudden concern less than credible.

Not only did the sky not fall, but the examples that he and others in his Administration gave of the drastic impact turned out not to be true.  With cuts totaling 2.3% of what the government spends, decrying cuts that turned out to be not operative further undercut his credibility.

Even the now infamous White House tours were something he failed to show leadership on – while it may have been the Secret Service’s decision (though likely approved by someone in the White House), Obama could have said, “The buck stops here (editor’s note: that’s catchy!) and we will find somewhere else to make cuts.”  But he did not, assuming it would allow him to score political points.  Oops.

2.     The President’s denial of the need to balance the budget or slice into the debt is the type of out of touch thinking that leads to six year itch election outcomes.

November 2014 is still a long way away, but Obama’s recent comments on spending, a balanced budget, and the debt are as tone deaf as Bush 41′s marveling at grocery store scanner technology.  Obama’s comments do not jibe with the level of concern Americans have toward fiscal issues.

Making these comments undercuts his message that we need a “balance.”  Undoubtedly that line dial tests well, but if you then essentially repudiate your own messaging, calling for balance when you clearly don’t mean it, it rings hollow.

Republicans need to tirelessly point out that he got his $650 billion in tax increases (which DO hit the middle class), and yet he refuses to cut spending by a similar amount.  Only Inside the Beltway is that balance.  (Run against DC, not the Democrats).  As Speaker Boehner succinctly put it: “He got his tax hikes that he campaigned on, on January first.  Now it’s time to cut spending.”

3.     It’s time to stop the politics and start being a leader.

Leadership is not the President’s strong suit.  Among the 18% of voters in the 2012 exit polls who said the most important characteristic in determining their vote was “is a strong leader,” Mitt Romney won 61%-38%.  It may be the first time that winning the strong leader dimension was not enough to win the White House.  Instead, Romney’s 18%-81% deficit among the 21% who said “cares about people like me” won the election for Obama.

But empathy only gets so far when it is not political season.  Obama offered a first hint of leadership by having dinner with GOP Senators and lunch with Paul Ryan a couple of weeks ago, but most of the time he runs from leadership.  Nothing is ever his fault.  The national debt is not an issue.  He won’t offer specific ideas, and when he did have a budget, not a single Democrat in Congress voted for it.  He won’t support giving himself more flexibility on the sequester.

The President is required BY LAW to submit a budget by the first Monday in February, which other presidents have sometimes let slip until the end of that week.  The budget process was designed for a President to lead, with his budget first, followed by the two Chambers.  No other president has ever waited until April, crossing his fingers and hoping that Congress will act first.  Reagan had “Leadership That’s Working,” while Obama has “Leadership That’s Golfing.”

The Bottom Line

Again, given his strength with his base of minority voters and white liberals, there is only so far Obama’s approval can fall.  But, so far in the second term, he’s done nothing to signify to swing voters that he lives up to the lofty standards he set for himself in his first campaign.  Continually letting down the voters is no way to create the legacy Obama envisions for himself.  And that’s why his numbers are slip-sliding away.