Obama’s Tumble — It’s Nothing Personal.

Mullings.com writer (and friend of  Public Opinion Strategies) Rich Galen pointed out today that on the 100th day of his Administration, Barack Obama had a 67% approve/28% disapprove rating.

Now, however, after 224 days of his Administration, Obama has tumbled down to a 51% approve/42% disapprove rating.  Thus, it took just 124 days for the President’s job rating to fall a net 30 points.

A lot of analysis has been done so far as to why.  And the why of the drop has focused on substantive issues.  The superfluous stimulus package, the flailing around on health care, and a foreign policy centered more on apologizing than on leadership. 

In his column today, David Brooks sums it up nicely:

The public has soured on Obama’s policy proposals. Voters often have only a fuzzy sense of what each individual proposal actually does, but more and more have a growing conviction that if the president is proposing it, it must involve big spending, big government and a fundamental departure from the traditional American approach.

Driven by this general anxiety, and by specific concerns, public opposition to health care reform is now steady and stable. Independents once solidly supported reform. Now they have swung against it. As the veteran pollster Bill McInturff has pointed out, public attitudes toward Obamacare exactly match public attitudes toward Clintoncare when that reform effort collapsed in 1994.

(I added the link to the McInturff release.)

But, it is also important to recognize the limits of Obama’s tumble (Brooks calls it a “slide” — I started this post with “tumble” prior to finding his column on Real Clear Politics).   The biggest limit is that the President’s problems are NOT personal.  At least not yet.

From a myriad of focus groups I’ve been doing over the last few months, it is clear that many swing voters still like President Obama and think that he is a good personal change from George W. Bush.  Obama is perceived to be smart, a good communicator, and aggressively trying to solve problems.  Where swing voters have doubts, however, is with his policies.  They worry that he is biting off too much, too soon, and that he has a knee-jerk big government solution to every issue.   Swing voters are concerned that approach will make our problems worse, not better.

Thus, this serves as a warning for us Republicans in the opposition.  The Democrats are better at bitter personal attacks.  As tempting as it is to launch the same style of attacks on Obama, the public is not ready for it. 

I know that the Dems went hard after Bush 41 as being elitist and out of touch with the problems facing the country, and after Bush 43 for being intellectually incurious (i.e. stupid) even when both were popular.  Those attacks became self-fulfilling prophecies as their approval ratings dropped because of policy problems (bad economy in 1991-92, Iraq War/Katrina mishandling in 2005-06).  The combination of policy problems and personal attacks worked to steadily drive down both Bushs’ standings. 

Thus, the temptation is there to launch personal attacks on Obama.  However, we haven’t found any theme out there that has some resonance with swing voters (just because something works with the base doesn’t mean it translates to swing voters).   People make jokes about the Chicago way of politics, but it has yet to stick to him — Obama is perceived so far as to transcend it (I’m not looking for a factual argument, just reporting public perceptions).

Obama is having significant problems based on his policies.  Voters still like him personally.   Plus, like it or not, the media’s infatuation with Obama’s truly historical role means they will be overly protective of him personally.

If part of your campaign strategy calls for including Obama in the messaging, it should focus on concerns with his policies, and not be personal.  That may change down the road, but for now, avoid the temptation to lash back at Democrats with a personal attack on Obama.  Instead, his downward momentum is based on policy, which after all, is the most important outcome of politics. 

And, the Republican party still has image problems.  By showing alternatives to Obama’s predilection for big government solutions, policy fights with the Democrats is the best way to improve the GOP’s image problem.

Public Opinion Strategies