David Brooks can’t figure out why President Obama isn’t being crushed.
The economic mood of the country is terrible. Roughly 75 percent of Americans believe the economy is still in recession. According to a Quinnipiac survey, only 35 percent of Americans say they are better off than they were four years ago. Barely a third believe the country is heading in the right direction. The economic climate is as bad as or worse than it was in 1968, 1976, 1992 and 2000, years when incumbent parties lost re-election.
Then there is the ideological climate. Obama has governed from the left, but the country, as [Brookings Institution pollster Bill] Galston notes, has shifted to the right. Forty percent of Americans call themselves conservatives, the highest number ever measured.
According to an ABC News/Washington Post survey, only 22 percent of voters believe Obama’s views on the size and role of government are a reason to vote for him. The share of Americans who say the current level of inequality is acceptable has increased by seven percentage points since 1998, to 52 percent. Obama’s main policy initiative, health care reform, remains decidedly unpopular: 39 percent now support it, and 53 percent oppose, according to another ABC News/Washington Post poll.
Finally, Obama has lost support among crucial constituencies. He alienated independents in 2009 and has never won them back. According to a Pew Research Center poll, his support among Catholics has fallen to 42 percent from 49 percent. Even young voters are moving away. And as Galston notes, voter registration among Hispanics has declined by five percentage points, the first significant drop in four decades.
The fundamentals suggest that Obama will go the way of Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy — incumbents who were trounced in hard times. And yet Obama isn’t on the same trajectory as other global leaders, left or right.
Shorter version: Augh, why, why, why?
Well, let’s take a look at some of his points. “Obama has governed from the left…” Sure, assuming that you’re seeing the world through tea-colored glasses. By any measure of left vs. right historically — and certainly by the measure of progressives — he’s in the center in terms of economics and dealings with Wall Street. A leftist would have prosecuted the hell out of the people who brought the economy down in 2008, and a leftist would have been out camped out in Zucotti Park. A leftist would never have allowed the Bush tax cuts to be continued; “no more tax cuts for the rich” is about as bright a line to the left as “abortion is murder” is to the right, and he compromised on them to a fare-thee-well. He’s maintained and even strengthened the Bush foreign policy, including drone warfare, dealing with enemy combatants, and he caved on the Gitmo closing without much of a fight, leading a lot of us to believe he never intended to close it in the first place. It took him almost four years to come around to being on board with marriage equality, something a real progressive would have declared before the first election. The only people who consider Barack Obama to be a leftist are the ones who wouldn’t let that liberal Ronald Reagan get past a primary today.
“Obama’s main policy initiative, health care reform, remains decidedly unpopular.” Gee, you’d think that after all the demonization, exaggerations, and outright lies from the GOP and Fox News, that’s a surprise? What’s actually the case is that while 39 percent support it when you ask about it generally, support goes way up when you ask people about the actual elements in it such as coverage for pre-existing conditions, including children to the age of 26, and closing the doughnut hole for senior citizens. The biggest problem with both the polling and the perception is that most of the reforms haven’t taken place yet. If it survives the Supreme Court and goes into full effect, people will never want to give it up, including the tri-cornered hat set on their Rascal scooters paid for by Medicare.
“Obama has lost support among crucial constituencies.” Mr. Obama “disappointed” a lot of independents because he wasn’t Lancelot on a steed, and some of these are the folks who would have voted for Ralph Nader if he’d been on the ballot. Independents are notably unreliable in terms of party politics, hence the term “Independents.” As for the fall-off in Catholic support, gee, what a surprise after the entire collection of Robespierres from the pope on down got their tails all puffed up about sound medical advice and guidance on contraception. Oh, the humanity. As for the decline in Hispanic voter registration, perhaps the “papers, please” mentality coming from Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia on immigration might have something to do with it. As it is, Mr. Obama is still in a double-digit lead among that demographic no matter what Marco Rubio may do.
So why, according to Mr. Brooks, is Obama not being tossed out? Well, he admits that he has women and the non-religious on his side, but when you get right down to it, people just like him.
But most of the cause is personal. There’s an interesting debate over how much personal qualities matter in a presidential election. The evidence this year suggests: a lot. Take one contrast. According to a Fox News poll, only 36 percent of voters believe Obama has a clear plan for fixing the economy. But 48 percent approve of his performance. That means 12 percent of Americans approve of Obama even though they don’t think he has an agenda for moving us forward. In survey after survey, Obama is far more popular than his policies.
In other words, compared to that insufferable clueless weathervane of a plutocrat the GOP has finally settled on after a year of sheer sideshow abandon that gave us everything from “Nine-nine-nine” to “Oops,” thrice-married Newt Gingrich lecturing us on the sanctity of marriage and Rick Santorum obsessing about masturbation and gay sex, and despite having to run against the most vicious and racist political machine since Sheriff Bart rode into Rock Ridge, fortune favors Barack Obama.
Of course, Mr. Brooks can’t come right out and say that.
I’d say that Obama is a slight underdog this year: the scuffling economy will grind away at voters. But his leadership style is keeping him afloat. He has defined a version of manliness that is postboomer in policy but preboomer in manners and reticence.
Okay, I admit I have no clue as to what that last sentence of psycho-babbitry means — “manliness” “postboomer” vs. “preboomer” wha…? — but what he seems to be saying is “oh, the hell with it; Obama is going to win.”