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Minority President: Public Opinion and Obama

David Callahan

Like many progressives, I have been disappointed by President Obama for not staking out more aggressive negotiating positions and being a more forceful leader overall. Long before Drew Westen's attack on Obama yesterday in the New York Times, my colleague Bob Kuttner wrote a powerful book on this problem, A Presidency in Peril. It makes for very disturbing reading, especially in light of the debt ceiling deal.

Yet if Westen and Kuttner are right to criticize Obama for being weak, and selling out too quickly on too many issues, it is not clear that stronger progressive leadership from the president would have led to different outcomes on the biggest issues.

By now, the could'ves and should'ves of Obama's presidency have gotten plenty of attention, as the president's defenders and detractors have it duked out over whether Obama could have won a bigger stimulus or gotten a public option and so on. Strangely, though, these debates seldom even mention one of the biggest facts about Obama's presidency: namely, that he has been among the least popular first-term presidents in modern history.

A central reality of American politics is that presidents have limited leverage if they don't enjoy high approval ratings. And that's been the story for Obama nearly from day one. A terrible economy helped pull Obama's approval ratings down within a few months of taking office and, after June 2009, he never again was over 60 percent. By early 2010, just a year into his presidency, he was at 50 percent. As Gallup noted in January 2010, "Obama's initial approval rating in his second year as president is among the lowest for elected presidents since Dwight Eisenhower." Reagan -- who also inherited a crummy economy -- was just a tad less popular in early 1982. Even Clinton and Carter were more popular than Obama going into their second year.

In particular, Obama's popularity among independents cratered during his first six months in office as the economy failed to improve and as he rolled out the stimulus and healthcare. Support among this group fell by nearly 20 points between Obama's inauguration and summer 2009. That decline made it much harder for Obama to win the support of moderate Democrats in Congress.

It isn't just the economy that explains why Obama has been one so unpopular. It is also the deep polarization of American politics. In earlier times, the public viewed the president through a less narrowly partisan lens and gave him more slack. But now the battle lines are more entrenched, with the electorate more evenly divided than at any time since modern polling began. Let's not forget that Obama is only the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to get elected with over 50 percent of the popular vote -- and just barely (he won by 53 percent.)

Now, some readers are probably thinking that Republicans manage to be very principled and ideologically driven amid these razor thin margins, and it seems to help them, so why can't Democrats be the same way?

One big answer is that the conservative base is much larger than the progressive base. As Nate Silver wrote in his Times blog last month, Republican voters have been moving steadily to the right since 1984:

Until fairly recently, about half of the people who voted Republican for Congress (not all of whom are registered Republicans) identified themselves as conservative, and the other half as moderate or, less commonly, liberal. But lately the ratio has been skewing: in last year’s elections, 67 percent of those who voted Republican said they were conservative, up from 58 percent two years earlier and 48 percent ten years ago.

In contrast, Democratic voters remain fairly moderate. "Back in 1984, just 26 percent of the people voting Democratic for Congress said they were liberals. . .that fraction has now risen to 41 percent."

These numbers explain a lot. John Boehner governs like a guy who speaks for Republican voters who are 67 percent conservative. Obama governs like a guy who speaks for voters who are just 41 percent liberal.

Westen and Kuttner may be right that a more forceful Obama would be able to galvanize a bigger base among voters who are progressive on many specific issues -- especially the need to stand up to corporate America. But the effect could also be the opposite or a wash. To the extent, for instance, that moderates (who comprised 44 percent of the electorate in 2008) are queasy about big government and large deficits, it's hard to see why Obama could have improved his standing by arguing for a larger stimulus or fighting for the public option. Even beating up more on Wall Street may have had mixed results, rallying more working class whites to Obama but pushing away affluent voters who Obama had won in 2008.

Progressives are right to want a president who speaks reliably for us. But until the progressive base is larger, that's a big ask. Ultimately, moreover, this is our problem to solve, not Obama's.

Yet more importantly -- and to repeat my main point -- Obama's approval ratings and thus his power are largely dictated by the economy. And until this changes, he will remain a weak president.