President Obama’s Summertime Blues

Yes, his approval ratings have plummeted, but Republicans shouldn’t gloat: Americans have had it with the whole political class.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

It has been a summer of discontent in American politics, and President Obama has suffered for it.

The battle over the debt ceiling, turmoil on Wall Street, fear of a second recession, soldiers’ lives lost in Afghanistan – all have taken a toll on the president’s standing. Gallup found that Obama’s job approval rating fell to 39 per cent, its lowest point since he entered office, and that only 26 per cent of the country approve of his handling of the economy. He is even catching flak for taking some vacation time.

In many respects, the discontent is understandable. The president is the focus of politics, and Obama has looked ineffectual. He recently said he will turn to ‘focus on jobs’, but this is at least the third time he has announced such a ‘focus’. He has now said he will unveil his new jobs policy in September.

Obama came into the White House promising to fix Washington, but, as the debt-ceiling fiasco showed, that hasn’t happened. He blames Republicans for that debacle, but the mere existence of opposition isn’t an excuse. And it also ignores the fact that he had a Democratic Party majority in Congress to work with during his first two years.

It has got so bad for Obama that formerly infatuated liberal supporters are dumping him. The most talked-about expression of ‘where is the love?’ was an op-ed in the New York Times by Drew Westen, psychology professor and author of The Political Brain (which lamely reduced politics to neural activity – you can read the spiked review here). Westen says he was once ‘bewitched’ by Obama but, like many other liberals, is now disenchanted.

To this I would say: what did you expect? An objective observer during the electoral campaign could see that Obama was an inexperienced candidate with empty slogans about ‘hope’ and ‘change’, a moderate who was hardly going to restore FDR’s New Deal. I would also ask Obama’s new critics: what took you so long? While some might have got caught up in the excitement of electing the first black president, it’s been two-and-a-half years of little in results – it’s not like Obama has all of a sudden stopped being effective. The reason for the romantic break-ups is that, with his approval ratings plummeting, the liberal-left now fears that Obama will lose in 2012, and, having zero loyalty, they are abandoning him.

As it happens, where liberal pundits were overly gaga in the beginning, now they are overly negative about Obama. Neither Obama nor the Democrats in Congress have a real answer for the problems facing the country. But, in electoral terms (which is what the commentariat is narrowly focused on), Obama’s prospects are not as bleak as they make out.

No one involved in the debt-ceiling deal came out looking well, but, relatively speaking, Obama fared much better than the Republicans. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, 72 per cent disapproved of the Republicans’ handling of negotiations, while 47 per cent disapproved of Obama’s role. More generally, the Republicans are less popular than before, and the Tea Party has seen its unfavourable rating rise from 18 per cent to 40 per cent.

The turn against the Republicans has surprised many – and most Republican officials are refusing to acknowledge it. They (and others) misread the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in November 2010 as a mandate for sweeping change, when it was really a protest vote expressing frustration with the Democrats. Voters don’t have deep faith in either major party, and that is why they appear to be so fickle. In any event, Obama should, if he’s shrewd, be able to use the latest expression of anti-Republican feeling to his advantage.

Moreover, just look at the ‘island of misfit toys’ that is the field of Republican candidates for president (as one commentator aptly described them). There’s Mitt Romney, who at best is said to look the part. There’s also Michele Bachmann, the winner of the recent Iowa straw poll, who, outside of the Republican base, is best known for her glazed look and her off-the-wall views (such as describing homosexuality as ‘personal enslavement’).

For months Republicans themselves have described the crop of candidates as a ‘weak field’ and have called for more to enter. Many were thus pleased when last week Rick Perry, governor of Texas, threw his hat into the ring. But in just one week he managed to raise serious doubts within the party. First he accused Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, of treason. Then critics brought up Perry’s threat – just two years ago – to have Texas secede from the US (this coming from a man who says he loves the country more than the current White House occupant). Finally, Perry touted his ‘Texas miracle’ of job creation, only to have many quickly poke big holes in his record (the Washington Post noted that since the recession of 2007, all of the growth in Texas jobs has been in the public sector – helped by the federal stimulus money Perry denounces.)

Before the first week of candidacy declarations was over, Republican pundits were back to begging others to run. As the case of Rick Perry shows, candidates look really attractive until they actually join the race and open their mouths.

Indeed, the weaknesses of the Republicans are what give Obama continued relevance. Yet while Obama’s electoral prospects are not unimportant, a focus on the horserace character of political discussion is misguided. The bigger picture is that the public has soured with Obama and both parties in Congress – that is, with the entire political class. All of the discussion about whether Obama is up or down misses this key point. If politicians of both parties cannot address today’s big problems, it really doesn’t matter much who will win or lose the White House in 14 months’ time.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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Topics USA


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