President Obama is a highly polarizing figure. The Gallup organization says that the "65 percentage-point gap between Democrats' (88%) and Republicans' (23%) average job approval ratings for Barack Obama is easily the largest for any president in his first year in office, greatly exceeding the prior high of 52 points for Bill Clinton." Thus Obama's approval rating, which hovers around 48 percent, depends in great part on overwhelming Democratic support. Eighty-two percent of Democrats approve of Obama's job performance, according to Gallup, compared to 18 percent of Republicans. The Pollster.com average of independent support finds more independents disapproving of the president (48 percent) than approving (43 percent).
Close your eyes for a moment and remember the beginning of 2006. Independents were quickly running away from President Bush because of the Iraq war and corruption. Democrats had despised him since the 2000 election. Bush's approval rating was in the mid- to low-40s and falling. It was kept afloat by Republican support. Then too, Republicans began to abandon the president--not all of them, by any means, but enough to drive his approval to record lows.
Why did Republicans run away? It wasn't the war, which they supported. It wasn't the economy, which was okay at the time. The reasons GOP partisans expressed little enthusiasm about Bush were self-inflicted. The taint of corruption hung over the GOP Congress. Bush was a big-government conservative who spent too much money.
Most important, Bush gambled on the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform that would have effectively amnestied millions of illegal immigrants. The policy had both a substantive and political purpose. It was intended to help solve a major issue. It was also meant to reach out to an electorate that had shunned Republicans--hispanics. It flopped.
The Bush immigration reform split the Republican party. Many Republicans threw up their hands and decided the president was no longer worth vigorous support with regard to domestic affairs (the war on terror was always a different story). Bush's approval rating among Republicans sank. His overall job approval sank with it.
Is it possible the spending freeze will have similar consequences for Obama? Like immigration reform, the spending freeze is intended to signal that the president wants to bring a major problem under control--in this case, the public debt. Like immigration reform, the spending freeze is meant to reach out to an electorate that is wary of the president--in this case, independents and Tea Party activists. Like immigration reform, the spending freeze will force the president's base to reach for the nearest bottle of antacid tablets.
Whatever the administration’s motive--whether it was to appease bond traders or tea-partiers--and whether the effect on the actual budget is large or small, the administration’s announcement is an admission of abject failure. Obama was, after all, a professor, as were two of his main economic advisors, Larry Summers and Christina Romer, but in the past year, they have failed utterly to explain to Americans (let alone the bond traders) how deficits function in recessions.
For what it's worth, I think Americans realize that deficit spending is necessary in a recession. They just think these deficits are over the top, and that Obama and the Democrats want to make them worse--and have the deficits persist indefinitely.
The larger point, though, is that co-partisans do not respond well to perceptions of failure! Democrats are likely to rebel if Obama tacks center-right. Which will divide their party further. Which will bring his approval rating down more.
President Clinton never had to deal with an angry, unapologetic, and relentless left wing. Obama does. It could ruin his presidency.