President Obama is outside the ideological mainstream, viewed as very liberal by an electorate that’s moderate or somewhat conservative. His domestic policies are unpopular, notably his health care law, economic stimulus, and spending plans. His foreign policy initiatives—curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons program, improving America’s position in the Middle East, fostering better relations with Russia—have failed. The public wants Obama to jettison his ineffective economic policies and implement new ones. But he refuses.
Since Obama took office in January 2009, the well-being of Americans has declined. Slow growth, high unemployment, increased poverty, and millions of dropouts from the job market are hallmarks of his presidency. The median income of American households has fallen to its lowest level since 1995. From June 2009 (when the recession officially ended) to June 2012, median annual household income diminished from $53,508 to $50,964. All age groups under 65 suffered drops in income, 25-to-34-year- olds a drop of 8.9 percent.
Yet Obama, despite this litany of failure, has a 50-50 chance, maybe better, to win reelection. His poll numbers are roughly the same as President Bush’s in 2004, when he won a second term. A majority of Americans still like Obama personally. His job approval, which loosely correlates with an incumbent president’s share of the actual vote, has hovered in the high 40s. Last week, it hit 51 percent in a Gallup poll. By comparison, President Carter’s approval rating at this time in 1980 was 37 percent.
Obama’s escape from accountability—or at least from anything close to full accountability—is the mystery of presidential politics in 2012. Polls by Gallup, Fox News, and Zogby gave Obama a 6-point lead over Mitt Romney last week. True, other polls gave Obama a smaller lead, and Rasmussen had Romney ahead 48-to-45 percent. Nevertheless, the mainstream media have now concluded that Obama is the likely victor on November 6.
How did this happen? If there’s an overriding answer, I haven’t found it. A number of factors seem to have played a part: the press, incumbency, polling, the Obama and Romney campaigns. Let’s examine them one by one.
• The media. If a Republican president had a record like Obama’s, his approval rating would be lower than Carter’s. Press bias in Obama’s favor is a given. It was activated again by the attacks on American embassies in the Middle East. The media scorned Romney’s criticism of the Obama administration’s response as a gaffe that may have doomed his campaign. Obama got a pass, though the anti-American assaults were stark evidence of the failure of his policy toward Islamic countries.
This was press favoritism at its most typical: Obama’s okay, his critics aren’t. The list of issues on which the president has been treated with deference is long. Refusal to address the looming debt crisis, opposition to entitlement reform, failed policies to spur the economy, create the promised green jobs, or mitigate the housing bust, dishonest campaign ads, record numbers on food stamps, higher gas prices and insurance premiums—the media have held Obama responsible for none of these. Instead, they zing him on trivialities, like playing golf too often or having too few press conferences.
• Incumbency. Obama has used his office cleverly to promote himself. He took enormous credit for ordering the assassination of Osama bin Laden, a decision any president would have made. His wife Michelle, more active than any first lady in recent memory, has become a huge asset. He used executive orders to enact programs like amnesty for young illegal immigrants and to weaken the work requirement in welfare reform. He’s made recess appointments when Congress wasn’t in recess. All of this, by the way, to please liberal interest groups. Obama has also marketed, with some success, a dubious idea: The 2008 recession was so damaging that an anemic recovery is the best that could be hoped for. This lets Obama off the hook for a woeful economy.
• Polls. Polls often make Obama look more popular than he is. In some cases, pollsters use a sample of voters more appropriate for 2008 than 2012. “I do believe pollsters are being cautious about turnout models,” a conservative pollster said. “They are skewing towards a 2008 turnout model rather than something normal, which helps Obama’s numbers. I also think there are just a slight number of folks who say they are voting Obama, but really not. Maybe 1 or 2 percent.”
One practice that aids Obama and Democrats is heavy reliance on cell phone interviews, a pollster told me. “If they’re getting 30 percent of their responses from cell phone interviews,” as some pollsters do, that “may skew their responses to a more D-leaning audience.” This pollster does 20 percent cell phone interviews and last week had Romney leading Obama, 48-to-47 percent.
• The Obama campaign. It gets credit for turning the presidential race, partly anyway, into a choice between two candidates rather than a referendum on Obama’s record. This has been the president’s goal since his reelection drive went full-throttle in early 2011. By trashing Romney as a greedy, uncompassionate plutocrat, the strategy is to persuade voters he’s an unacceptable alternative as president.
• The Romney campaign. It hasn’t adjusted to the campaign as a choice. “That’s the problem,” says pollster Frank Luntz, who has conducted dozens of focus groups this year. “When your opponent has $1 billion to spend, it’s [no longer] a referendum. It’s a choice.” Swing voters and independents don’t believe Obama deserves reelection, Luntz says, but Romney “hasn’t made the case for himself.” There’s “no ‘not Obama’ lever. They’ll have to pull the Romney lever. At this point, they aren’t willing to do that. He hasn’t given them a reason why.” Were the election solely about Obama’s record, he wouldn’t need to.
Barack Obama isn’t Jimmy Carter. The economy won’t drag him down as it did Carter in 1980. In last week’s Fox News poll, Obama and Romney were tied on who voters “trust to do a better job on improving the economy and creating jobs.” The message to Romney here is so clear that even his campaign staff should be able to understand it.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.