The end of the popularity contest 

Time Magazine has a poll out today demonstrating that, “voters like Obama more than his domestic policies.” Time notes,

“In a new TIME poll, 49% of respondents say they approve of the President's performance, compared to 45% who disapprove. And yet the President's popularity is at odds with the stinging appraisals of many of his signature policies, which lead 56% of voters to say the U.S. is on the wrong track.”

There is, to my mind, a lot of truth to this analysis. And a failure to grasp the chasm between a president who is popular and a president who is perceived to be effective speaks to one of the central problems that currently mires the Obama administration.

I mean, it is no secret that Barack Obama has always been considered a likable and popular politician. In many regards, it was Obama’s coolness that gave him a distinctive leg up over MCCain in the 2008 election.

I recall seeing an October 2008 poll of young voters who heavily favored then candidate Obama. Of the top five reasons why they like Obama over McCain, numbers 2, 3, and 4 were: Obama “is inspiring” (67%), Obama “has a sense of humor” (58%), and Obama “is optimistic about the country’s future” (55%). 65% of 18-to-29 year old respondents said they would like to have Obama as a teacher, 63% as a boss, and 53% said they would like to have a beer with Obama.

Those are hard numbers to beat and they help to explain how it is that the Obama campaign was so successful in motivating young voters.

And Obama’s wooing of the public didn’t end on the campaign trail. One remembers the what can only be described as, “adorable” video of Obama playing “horse” with former NBA star turned sports personality Clark Kellogg while giving an interview.

Come on. I dare you to watch that video and then not agree with 53% of 18-29 year-olds in October 2008 that you’d like to go out for a beer with that President. I don’t mean to be dismissive, but it takes a special kind of person not to find Obama’s wry smile and quick wit charming to some degree or another.

But in politics, being liked isn’t always enough.

As the Time article goes on to note,

“Just 44% of poll respondents backed Obama's stewardship of the economy, which 90% rate as fair or poor. Forty-three percent of poll respondents say the $862 billion Recovery Act, which a July 14 White House analysis credits with creating or saving some 3 million jobs, has helped, while 53% think the country would be better off if the money hadn't been spent.

...

While Obama's approval rating on foreign affairs remain high—he earned a 52%-41% split overall, with respondents favoring his handling of the Afghan war by a 47%-44% margin—his domestic marks are considerably worse. Fifty-four percent of voters disapprove of Obama's leadership during the oil-spill crisis, and 53% are unhappy with his performance on immigration policy.”

And I don’t need to remind anyone where Americans are at in terms of health care reform. The fact of the matter is that being liked is not the same as being told you are doing a good job. Any number of us know people we love as people, but with whom we wouldn’t trust a single thing of importance.

But there is this pervasive notion within the Washington bubble, a notion that is particularly strong in the White House, is that the opposition to the administration’s agenda is merely a matter of confusion and that all it will take to flip voters is to have the President explain the measures and reassure Americans that he has everything well in hand. That notion is rapidly coming to and end, as the Time poll demonstrates.

It’s not so much that Americans don’t understand the President’s legislative victories, as it is that those victories are, almost by design, destined to disappoint a majority of voters.

Conservative and Republicans have stood opposed to President Obama and Democrats’ vision for the country, whether we talk about health care, immigration, or energy reforms. And the flip side of things, liberals throw up their hands in constant exasperation over the administration’s insistence on incrementalism and a lack of boldness in taking advantage of the opportunity of the 2008 elections.

As prominent liberal blogger Kevin Drum notes,

“Here's the good news: this record of progressive accomplishment officially makes Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. And here's the bad news: this shoddy collection of centrist, watered down, corporatist sellout legislation was all it took to make Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. Take your pick.”

 

Drums assessment is not an uncommon feeling among liberals, despite healthy approval ratings from self-described Democrats. And in an earlier post, Drum acknowledges (somewhat tongue -in-cheek) that he has generally been one of the President’s less vociferous critics on the left.

No amount of glad handing and photo oping will overcome real and sincere divisions of opinion on public policy. And that is the road block against which the Obama administration is starting to bump up -- with a vengeance.

And despite House Democrats carping about how the White House and Obama haven’t done enough to help them secure a majority in the midterms, recent polling suggests that the President’s support now hurts more than it helps would be candidates.

Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning writer Saul Bellow once described politics as, “a cross between a popularity contest and a high school debate.” There is a point in every politician’s career at which, high school or not, the debate over takes the contest. At those moments, one gets to see just how talented that politician is.

Barack Obama seems invariably to have hit that point. And we’re all waiting to see what happens.

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Scott Payne

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