As the clock ticks down to the 2010 congressional midterm elections, Team Obama has spent the last several weeks criss-crossing the country in an effort to get out the democratic vote. While the midterms may very well not go the democrats’ way, President Obama’s sliding poll numbers have elicited predictions of a one term presidency, but also hopeful comparisons to Bill Clinton’s poll numbers during his first couple years in office.
Currently President Obama has an approval rating hovering in the mid-40’s-as President Clinton did at this point in his presidency. In 1995, when President Clinton was marking his first two years in office his poll numbers crested above 50%, and remained pretty much there throughout the remainder of his presidency. For President Obama to achieve similar two-term success, a similar recovery in his approval rating is probably needed.
Interestingly, President Obama’s approval rating trend, when graphed since the time he entered office in 2009, is most similar thus far to Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings which took a steadily declining path his first two years in office before recovering, and to Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings which took a similar dive, . . . only never to recover.
Interestingly, some of the more gregarious and, in private, kind hearted presidents have gone on to win second terms in office. For example, Ronald Reagan used to personally greet the pilots on Air Force during each trip and he paid special attention to those around him. Similarly Bill Clinton was liked by his secret service detail, whereas Carter earned a reputation for being smug and condescending in private. Though such personal details appear to be almost irrelevant to the job of running the country-just ask anybody who feels that Reagan’s two terms in office were a disaster-they have begun to leak out every so slowly concerning the Obama White House.
Outgoing staff have described the president as being highly impatient. During meetings he cuts off discussion at 45 minutes and if the time limit is reached then he reportedly walks out of the room. Sadly, this is a very Carteresque thing to do. Jimmy Carter, whom I feel was a decent president who does wonderful work as a ex-president, used to become very irate when White House staff used the tennis court without his permission when he was gone, and would make a game of having interested parties telephone him while he thought about letting them use the courts. Petty? Yes, but does anybody care?
At some level, the electorate has a perception, perhaps subconscious, about whether the president is simply likably enough to keep in office, and on their television sets, for four more years.
Such interpersonal likability was what got George W. Bush on the republican presidential ticket in the first place, remember the question “who would you like to have beer with?” So, in a sense at the national level the electorate wants a politician with whom they can live with, and someone who doesn’t start acting like royalty. George W. Bush’s popularity plummeted as his every-man act started to look more like a goofy swagger, and as the connections between his White House, and that of his father became more apparent.
I think the moment when President Obama’s likability was called into question was when he took his wife on a plane trip to New York to watch a play. A promise which he had made to her, but an event which wasn’t necessarily given positive publicity in the press. The price tag was in the tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, and though George W. frequently flew up to his ranch in Texas during his presidency, the timing could not have been worse. The economic recession was getting worse by the day and GM was about to declare bankruptcy.
President Clinton on the other hand never seemed to lose that every Joe sensibility during his time in office, though his visits to McDonalds were the subject of dozens of jokes, it served to cement in people’s mind the image of someone connected to lives of ordinary citizens.
Bill Clinton combined real compassion for the poor and working class with the outward friendliness of Ronald Reagan. For Clinton this was no act as he did, and truly does, still care about people living in unfortunate circumstances, witness the amazing achievements of the Clinton Global Initiative.
Does President Obama also care about the struggles of the poor and middle class in America?
Some of the legislation that he has supported says yes, while his campaigning style has left the answer to this question up for debate. President Obama ascended to the presidency in part by criticizing his predecessor, a strategy that was entirely successful when Bush was still in office. And to a large degree this is the same strategy still being used, only he has shifted his aim slightly to the republican. If anything the President’s partisan attacks have only become more frequent in the past year.
But democratic voters can’t become energized in the long term as just an opposition party, there needs to be a glimmer of how President Obama will make his second term in office better, than simply being better than the hypothetical republican alternative. Sadly, the most important piece of health care legislation passed in the past two years, perhaps the past several decades, the health care legislation, has almost been disowned by the White House as President Obama is too afraid to more frequently discuss it due to poll numbers.
Such reticent has lead many voters to conclude that there must be something massively wrong with this piece of legislation.
During a recent rally President Obama was heckled by AIDS activists who are upset that he has flatlined funding for this piece of the global health budget (though overall the global health budget has increased above inflation). He response to them was blunt: the republicans don’t care about funding HIV/AIDS programs, and the democrats are the only one who care. This isn’t exactly true as President Bush may on a good day be remembered as a president who markedly increased funding for HIV/AIDS, and there are republican members of congress who want to up funding for HIV/AIDS as well.
Team Obama’s marketing strategy is like Coke saying, “hey, in the end you are going to drink either Pepsi or Coke and you have to choose us because Pepsi is a disaster.” Doesn’t sound very convincing does it?