Obama's Sinking Popularity. Does it Matter?

Obama's Sinking Popularity. Does it Matter? July 24, 2009

As mentioned in the Morning Report today, Barack Obama’s poll numbers are sinking at a fairly alarming rate.  They should not seriously concern anyone for Obama’s political future, in my view; approval numbers this far away from the next election contest don’t mean much.  Ever since taking office, Obama has been spending political capital at a swift rate.  As Bush did in 2004, Obama will have abundant opportunity to campaign again and re-present himself to the American people.  (Internationally, Obama is quite popular, at least in Europe; less so in those places where most of today’s terrorists come from).

Yet it does show that three things have changed.  Although they are negative developments for the Obama team in the short term, they may serve Obama’s long-term (legacy) interests as well as the United States (oh yeah, that) for the better.

1.  First, the extraordinary momentum that Obama had guilt up in January is finally burning away, and this will change the calculus of power between his administration and the Congress.  Reid and Pelosi have largely had their way because Obama has entrusted them with the sausage-grinding of the legislative process, yet rank-and-file members of the party, and certainly the centrist Blue Dogs, have been bulldozed by the Obama administration.  Rahm Emanuel is a champion arm twister, and you can be sure that when he heads down to Capitol Hill he has Obama’s approval ratings at hand.  The way the Obama camp wielded power in Washington was predicated in large part on his popularity with the American people.  If they could not win the argument through persuasion and deals, they won the argument through brute force.  “I hear you, but we won the election, and the American people are behind us.” No one wished to cross Obama because Obama had the press corps and approval ratings in the mid-60s.  Arm-twisting only gets you so far when your political capital is diminishing.

The reason this is especially important is because the Blue Dog caucus is of absolutely critical importance to the Obama agenda, and the Blue Dogs especially will feel freer to flex their muscles as the approval numbers head south.  Since Obama abandoned his early gestures of bipartisanship and wrote off the Republicans, he cannot move his priorities through Congress without the help of the moderate Democrats.  Yet the Blue Dogs are (at least theoretically) opposed in principle to much of what Obama wishes to do, and if Obama cannot move them with an argument that *this* is what the American people want, he will find them much harder to budge (or buy).

2.  Second, Obama is entering a phase of his term when he will be judged less by rhetoric and more by results.  He has been in office now for six months.  The American people understood that he “inherited” a number of problems, some of them severe, and no one expected to have everything peachy-keen by now.  I think it’s fair to say, however, that the American people as a whole expected more.  Obama has not quite delivered on post-partisan harmony, and he certainly hasn’t restored the economy in the way that he made sound so easy before the election.  He has not substantially changed policies related to the war on terror, or even Iraq and Afghanistan.  His most significant achievements so far have been his stimulus bill and the world-record budget he proposed, and the public is not exactly enamored with either of those right now.

In sum, rhetoric begins to ring hollow, and in fact it quickly becomes a negative, when the results are not there.  If the results begin to roll in, then Obama can take justified credit and enjoy the rewards politically.  If they do not, the American people are no longer going to trust his word.  Every time he waxes eloquent, in fact, they will think to themselves, “Here he goes again.”  The more eloquent he becomes, the more they will resent the distance between his rhetoric and his results.

3.  Third, the Obama administration may begin to sense its own limitations and actually craft its agenda accordingly.  Here is where these developments could become positive for Obama’s legacy and for the future of the country.

Obama’s approval ratings, and his favor in the eyes of the press, made him seem omnipotent, and a sense of omnipotence leads to overreach.  The administration would be wise to withdraw during the August recess, fall off the front pages for a while, regroup, and come back with a more focused agenda that appeals to a broader swath of the political spectrum.  Knowing one’s limitations is a part of wisdom, and the administration could emerge from this, if they are willing to learn, as a wiser administration.  With a strong majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Obama can pass legislation that is universally opposed by Republicans and resisted by moderates in his own party.  But if it’s universally opposed by Republicans and resisted by moderate Democrats, then that means a majority of the American people are also likely to be opposed. A less radical agenda would find less favor at MoveOn.org, but more favor with Americans in general, and Obama will accomplish more of value in the long run (or, from the conservative perspective, at least do less harm) if he is not given carte blanche, but held accountable by reasonable people on both sides, forced by middling approval numbers to reject the extremes and embrace the best ideas of both parties.

The question, then, is whether the Obama camp is willing to learn and grow, or whether they are determined to forge ahead for ideological reasons.  My guess is that there will be a combination of pragmatism and principle here.  America is deeply invested in a President who had not even finished his first term in the Senate.  He is young, talented, intelligent, and articulate, but he was never very experienced.  Will he learn from his experience now?  Let us hope so.

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