Photo: The White House
The internets are abuzz today with the news that President Obama’s approval rating has dropped again, as measured by The Gallup Poll. The number is 41% approval. That’s as low as the president has ever been since taking office. Expect an onslaught of commentary explaining why.Here’s the quick and dirty: Presidents live and die on five verticals: disposal income, gas prices, inflation, overseas entanglements and the decivilization of American culture. None of these verticals are positive at the moment and none of them seem likely to become more positive in the near future.
As a result, the vast majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track and a majority of Americans think that President Obama doesn’t deserve re-election. In short, he’s in trouble.
Peggy Noonan today makes a fairly persuasive case that President Obama will likely lose the 2012 presidential election, provided that the Republicans nominate someone serious and experienced to run against him. Specifically, Ms. Noonan says:
We all get stuck in the day-to-day and lose sight of the overarching, but the overarching fact of Mr. Obama’s presidency is that he made a bad impression his first years in office and has never turned that impression around. He spent his first 14 months moving on what he was thinking about—health care—and not what the public was thinking about—the economic crash, jobs, spending. He seemed not to be thinking like everyone else, which underscored the idea that he was unresponsive to the crises they were seeing. It’s hard to get past that.
His speech this week brought together all the strands of his flawed leadership. It was at moments clever, but merely clever, not up to the needs of the moment—and cleverness in a time of crisis comes as an affront. The speech seemed oblivious to recent history, as if the president had just discovered something no one knows about, a problem with spending, and has decided to alert us to the danger.
That’s one way to look at the president’s George Washington University speech. Another is to look at it in the context of a long string of recent speeches and events and photo-ops and appointments and etc; all designed to make him appear centrist and, in so doing, make his opponents seem more “extreme” or “right wing” or whatever term you fancy.
Hamilton Jordan, who was President Carter’s chief political strategist, used to say that if you measured American political opinion on a scale from 1-to-10 (1 being the most conservative and 10 being the most liberal) the average American voter would land somewhere between 3.5 and 3.8, depending on the economic climate.
President Obama is a classic, almost academic liberal. If you were measuring his politics on Mr. Jordan’s scale he would fall somewhere between 8 and 9. The country as a whole is roughly 23% liberal, 40% moderate and 37% conservative. So a liberal candidate needs to take a much larger percentage of moderate votes than does a conservative candidate.
The only way for a liberal candidate like Obama to insure that he gets the bulk of the moderate vote is by pushing the perception of his Republican opponent as far right as possible. President Obama has decided to do this by ostentatiously appealing to the centre and by pounding away at the fault lines of the Tea Party-old school Republican coalition.
Thus it was that President Obama awarded former President George H. W. Bush the Medal of Freedom, talked about education reform with Jeb Bush, cut his budget deal with John Boehner, talked glowingly about the former US Ambassador to China John Huntsman, extended the George W. Bush tax cuts, and on, and on, and on. All of that was designed to make people look at him differently, make him seem less liberal, less big government, less stuck in the collapsing Blue model of governance. And there will be a lot more of it.
What Wednesday’s speech premiered was Obama’s first real thrust at dividing the Republican coalition along its San Andreas fault. In a speech billed as the Obama Plan to cut the federal deficit, he instead delivered a stinging attack on the deficit reduction plan offered up by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). And he chose as his point of attack the issue of Medicare, which he said he would protect, and Ryan would abandon, thus dooming old people to a Dickensian nightmare of pain and suffering.
Old-school Republicans have been around long enough to know the power of the Medicare issue. It can toss you out of office in a heartbeat. Tea Party Republicans, less attached to their (new-found) incumbency and determined to reverse the relentless growth of government, haven’t really experienced the issue’s recoil. They have the zeal of the undeterred. Which is exactly where President Obama wants them.
Everything he does from now on will revolve around the Medicare issue. It’s one government service that most voters love. With today’s vote on the Ryan budget plan, the Republican Party is on record as seeking to “transform” it. President Obama hopes that defending Medicare will define his “centrism” against Republican “extremism.” It’s both an admission of weakness (he doesn’t really have much else to run on) and a shrewd positioning.
We’ll see if it works.
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