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Morning Jay: Does Obama Really Believe He's Still Popular?

6:00 AM, Sep 16, 2011 • By JAY COST
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I couldn’t help but take note of this video:

Audience Member: I love you, Barack!

President Obama: I love you back…If you love me, you gotta help me pass this bill!

So, I guess this would be yet another reason not to expect the American Jobs Act to pass through the Congress. After all, there just aren’t enough people that love President Obama anymore!

I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating, given this absurd little clip: Barack Obama is not a popular president. He certainly is not as deeply unpopular as some of his predecessors have been at various points, but he has not been popular for a very long time.

Here’s the RCP average going back to the beginning of his term, with a green line slightly above 50 percent approval, which should be required to call any president “popular.”

He fell below the popularity line in December 2009, some 20 months ago, and has regularly been underneath it ever since. Just two, brief bounces have been the only exceptions – one when the military killed Bin Laden and the other when he signed the tax cut extension (which he tartly compared to a hostage situation).

Don't all presidents suffer declining popularity? Not all of them, but most of them do. Still, Obama so far has been one of the less popular presidents since World War II. The following chart tracks quarterly presidential job approval for all presidents who came into office upon election.

Clearly, Obama is in the bottom half of presidents ranked by early-term popularity. He’s tied with Ronald Reagan, and only Bill Clinton outstrips him in terms of unpopularity by quarter.

It’s also worth noting that Obama is different than Carter, Clinton, and Reagan in that he is more divisive than those three were up to this point in their terms. His job approval has typically been higher than those three, but so also has his disapproval rating, at least over the last two years. The problem for the president is that the half that thinks he is doing a bad job has consistently been larger than the half that thinks he’s doing a good job. And if you look back up at the RCP approval graph, the disapproval side has been getting bigger as of late.

I'm not making a point here about Obama's reelection prospects, as Reagan and Clinton both bounced back and won solid victories. Instead, I want to highlight his unpopularity to suggest that the White House has demonstrated a shocking level of political incompetence.

His numbers are nowhere near where they once were, and yet Obama still behaves as if it is still the winter of 2009 – as if the only people who are skeptical of him are the so-called radicals in the “Limbaugh wing” of the Republican party. This last week has been a great case in point. He’s basically done the same thing that he did in January 2009: produce a stimulus that largely favors Democratic client groups, accuse the opposition of acting in bad faith, and tour the country encouraging his followers to call, write, or (of course) tweet their support of the president to congressional Republicans, who are so eager to place politics above the national interest.

The difference, however, is that one in four Americans who approved of him back in January 2009 no longer do. That is a staggering loss of popular support – to put it in real terms, we’re talking about 58 million people who were once with Obama but no longer are today – and it makes this jobs bill strategy a waste of time. It is not going to move the needle appreciably: the people who still support him might be calling/writing/Tweeting, but he needs to convert some of the skeptical back to the faith, and doing the same-old, same-old is just not going to cut it.

So why is he even bothering with this circus show?

I can think of a few reasons, none of them flattering. Either he and his team don’t realize that the bottom has dropped out, so they don’t know that they need to change strategies, or they do realize it but haven’t come up with any alternatives.

My money is on the former – he and his team haven’t figured it out yet. Truman went hyper-partisan against the Republicans in 1948 because he believed that, deep down, the country was still way more Democratic than Republican (and he was right about that). Obama is behaving this way because he believes that, deep down, there are still way more Obama supporters than opponents.

Let’s keep in mind that this president’s “arrogance to excellence” ratio has always been staggeringly high, and realizing that the bottom has dropped out would require him to admit that he’s screwed up somewhere along the way. The sort of fellow willing to run for president after just two years in the Senate and make patently absurd promises about what his administration could do is not the sort with a thorough appreciation of his own faults.

Despite having written two autobiographies by the time he was 45, this president is really not very self-aware, and I doubt his sycophantic advisors are much better off. So, expect him to keep doing what he’s been doing over the last two years – acting as if he is not the divisive, unpopular leader he actually is.

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