Donald Trump going after Obama on the Today Show strikes me as a big deal. A lot of the attention from the various Trump interviews has been directed at his unsubstantiated comments about Obama’s birth certificate. However, I think there is another angle here worth considering. Put those comments aside and listen to what is a very clear, direct critique of President Obama’s tenure.
I hate what’s happening to the country…What we’re doing is unbelievable. If you look at what’s going on, where our jobs are disappearing to foreign countries…You’re going paying 7 or 8 dollars a gallon for your oil soon.
I blame a lot (on Obama). It’s been a terrible presidency…
What’s going on with this country, the way we’re spending money like drunken sailors, we are just absolutely…going to destroy our own freedom...
If there is a shutdown, I think it would be a tremendously negative mark on the president of the United States. He’s the one who has to get people together. I’m a deal man. I’ve made hundreds and hundreds of deals and transactions. He’s never done deals before…How’s he going to corral all these people?...You don’t have the right leader…
I think Obamacare is a total disaster…This country is going to hell.
There is something notable about this. Here is a high profile public figure with a hit television show. He doesn’t have a reputation for being a partisan political operative, and he comes on the Today Show (of all places!) to denounce the president in clear and unequivocal terms. That is something we have not seen yet during Obama’s term. So far, most of the attacks have been from the usual partisan quarters, and they do not get presented in such an unfiltered fashion to the sorts of people who watch the Today Show. Nor, for that matter, are they presented with the kind of directness that "The Donald" is famous for.
The Trump interview reminded me of this snippet from Michael Barone’s review of the Bush-Clinton-Perot battle in the 1994 Almanac of American Politics:
[A]s Clinton was going through the motions of the Democratic primary, the spotlight was stolen by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who on Larry King Live in February said he would run for president if enough people wanted him to. Perot’s crisp certainty and gift for sound bites (“I won’t sound bite this”) made him popular; his sharp attacks on budget deficits and calls for shared sacrifice struck a chord; his military background and success in business on one hand and his support of abortion rights and even gays in the military on the other made him a bridge between culturally hostile groups in a culturally divided country. Perot’s campaign “departisanized the critique of Bush,” as Democratic strategist Paul Tully put it, pushing Bush lower in the polls in the spring as a then-wounded and distrusted Bill Clinton could not have done. By June 1992, Perot was running even or ahead in a three-way race in national polls; Clinton was running a poor third and Bush as incumbent president was losing two of three Americans. [Emphasis Mine]
Now, to be clear, there are big differences between Trump and Perot. The biggest is Trump pushing the ludicrous birther issue. Whether he realizes it or not, it is fundamentally undermining his attack on Obama. To me, it’s a sign that he’s not actually serious about running for president. Still, it is very startling to see a typically non-partisan figure like Trump attack the president in such a direct way.
Subtract out the birther nonsense, and I think what we also have here is a prelude of what is coming down the pike soon enough. President Obama’s overall job approval is split 47-47, but the numbers underneath it are not good at all. On the economy, AP-GfK has him at -6, Gallup at -17, Quinnipiac at -26, and CBS at -14. On health care, AP-GfK has him above water (+4), but Gallup and Quinnipiac have him at -17 and -16, respectively. Meanwhile, check out the right track/wrong track numbers, which are as negative as they have been at any point during Obama’s tenure.
All this tells me that those top line approval numbers are very, very weak for the president. They are probably being propped up by people who are not happy with the way things are going, don't particularly like the job the president has done with specific issues, but have not yet connected all the dots. Just wait. As the Republican nomination battle begins in earnest, you’re going to see Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romeny, and others making the same kind of explicit argument that President Obama is a failure. In other words, they're going to connect the dots for people, just like Trump did in this interview.
What happens to Obama's job approval then? What happens when these Republican nominees start linking high unemployment, high gas prices, out of control deficits, and partisan gridlock to Obama?
Again, this is something we have not really seen happen yet. The public tends to tune out the partisan back-and-forth among congressional leaders; only a small proportion of the public watches cable news or listens to talk radio, where these kind of critiques have long been a staple; and during the congressional midterm campaign, the focus tended to be on Nancy Pelosi and local candidates. We have not yet seen really high profile figures go after Obama as directly as Trump did.
But we will soon enough.