Many factors are contributing to President Obama’s decline in popularity since his historic election less than two years ago. A stagnant economy with stubbornly high unemployment certainly caused part of the downward trend. But there is more.
A White House out of step with many Americans on both public policy substance and style in office also explains a huge part of the dip.
Presidential control over the business cycle is limited. So Obama’s sour economy is partially caused by factors beyond his reach.
But only partially. Other variables are clearly within his grasp. For example, presidents make their own policy and stylistic choices – preferences that can, and indeed do, produce major economic and popularity consequences. Errors in this second area fall squarely on the White House’s shoulders.
Images of Obama – the candidate – are now only fading memories in the minds of the American electorate. Instead, a new portrait of his governing style is coming into focus.
It’s a mosaic very different from the one painted in 2008.
The more contemporary picture is disturbing, particularly to independents who trusted promises of post-partisanship. Instead of reflecting the policy and stylistic goals that propelled him to the White House, a misaligned presidency is now apparent, out of step with swing voters in both substance and tone.
A new poll that I helped conduct for Resurgent Republic, that was released this week, underscores how Obama’s conduct in office and his legislative agenda have alienated many independents. It also shows that many of these swing voters now align much closer to Republicans than Democrats – another dark cloud on the White House’s horizon less than two months before the midterm elections.
The Resurgent Republic poll interviewed 800 self-identified independent voters and asked them to place themselves, Obama, and the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, on a 0-10 scale on a variety of policy issues.
The results show a clear – and disturbing – pattern. On nearly every issue, swing voters place Obama in the most extreme, liberal position – even more than congressional Democrats. The respondents align themselves in a more conservative position, much closer to congressional Republicans.
This same trend was evident on issues like government spending, health insurance, environmental regulation, and immigration.
For example, consider the results on spending. The survey asked independent voters to rank themselves, Obama, and the two political parties on a “0” to “Ten” scale, with “0” meaning “it’s a higher priority for the federal government right now to spend more money to help the economy recover” and “10” representing the belief that it’s a “higher priority for the federal government right now to spend less to reduce the budget deficit.”
Independents ranked Obama at 2.5 on this scale and congressional Democrats at 2.88. Notice these swing voters place the president “closer” to the most extreme, “spend more money” position.
In contrast, independents ranked themselves at 6.63 and the GOP at 7.04, demonstrating a close alignment with the Republicans and a significant distance from Obama and Democrats on this critical question.
This same pattern played out among independents on health insurance, immigration, and environmental policy – voter ranked themselves closer to Republicans than Democrats in Congress or Obama. Moreover, they consistently ranked Obama as more extreme than even the congressional Democrats.
This disappointment with Obama’s governing style translated to another question we asked in the poll about the president’s popularity. We asked if his sinking job approval was “mostly because of the economy” or if it was because of “his specific policies and how he has governed.” By a 10-point margin (52 percent - 42 percent) voters overall believed it was due to his policies and how he governed. Independents believed factors other than the economy contributed to his slumping numbers by an even larger, 23-point, margin (59 percent - 36 percent).
Consistent with that finding, we also asked independents why they might not vote for Obama in 2012. Nearly half (47 percent) noted that he had “not changed the way politics is conducted.” Only 31 percent mentioned “handling of jobs and the economy.”
Misalignment on policy and deep disappointment with Obama’s style are a growing narrative about this president. As Michael Gerson observed in the Washington Post last week, his methods and tone “have made it impossible for him to maintain the pretense of being a unifying, healing, once-in-a-generation leader.” “His challenge reaches beyond rhetoric and beyond the midterm elections: finding not only a new agenda but a new persona.”
This sounds more like a statement of fact than political advice. Either way, the president’s political iPod seems cranked up pretty loud right now. It’s not clear he’s hearing very well.