By Sunday afternoon, the Gallup tracking poll showed a 17-point spread in the president’s approval rating — 38 percent approval to 55 percent disapproval. Such polls are fickle and can go up and down quickly, often depending on unwarranted and unfair perceptions and media hype, hinging on everything from hurricanes to killing bin Laden. That said, these recent abysmal numbers might suggest that for the first time, a considerable number of Americans are starting to be turned off not just by Barack Obama’s economic policies, but by Barack Obama himself. But why now?
The president’s latest Martha’s Vineyard vacation was a public-relations disaster, wholly unnecessary, and in part responsible for Obama’s most recent slide in the polls. Part of the problem was purely coincidental and no one’s fault: Who could have expected that while the president of the United States was resting on an exclusive private beach on a tony island on a calm August day, millions of Eastern Seaboarders around him would be engaged in a media-driven frenzy of emergency preparation and evacuation?
Yet most of the negative perception was the president’s own doing. For nearly three years, there has been something strange about the First Family’s ritzy getaway tastes. The annual Martha’s Vineyard rentals were bookended by First Family junkets to Vail, Costa del Sol, and Hawaii. The choice of venues spawned at least three problems for the president that have nothing to do with the First Family’s right, and indeed duty, to enjoy a little well-earned vacation time — or with the fact that other presidents have vacationed in nice places.
First, Obama’s fiery rhetoric (“fat-cat bankers,” “corporate jets,” “millionaires and billionaires,” “redistributive change,” “at a certain point you’ve made enough money,” etc.) has demonized the better off. Many successful liberal presidents do that, but they finesse the necessary fundraising and schmoozing with Wall Street zillionaires with tact and discretion. Bill Clinton was a past master at gluing a populist veneer atop his deep fascination with old money and hip celebrity. The Obamas are far clumsier in both their class-warfare boilerplate and their overt elite tastes, whose contradictions they apparently either miss or don’t much care about.
No doubt this August the presidential advisers, without a clue about life in Tulare or Des Moines, gave sycophantic pep talks to the Obamas not to listen to “right-wing talk radio” and just enjoy what they like to enjoy. Obama himself apparently is still confident that the media will always exempt his golfing in a way they never did Bush’s far less frequent putting. Michael Moore, after all, is not going to cut and paste a video clip of Obama on the fairway.
Yet some photos inevitably leaked out of the “redistributive change” statist at his $50,000-a-week rented estate, surrounded by “millionaires and billionaires” who could alone afford such rental prices, many of whom flew in on “corporate jets.” That disconnect appears to the American public as abjectly hypocritical. We all know that for the president to keep pushing his agenda of higher taxes, he will soon inevitably get back to bashing the rich. But we also assume that this time the public has seen the flip side of a one-eyed Jack and wonders, when the president hits up his Vineyard neighbors for campaign cash at his $20 million rented estate, whether he will first make sure that they are not “fat cats” and owners of “corporate jets.”
Even right-wing presidents, even in good times, know enough not to rub in too much the perks of being president. George W. Bush was pilloried for chain-sawing at “the ranch,” as if he were a counterfeit outdoorsman; but he still knew that his media critics suffered far more in his beloved nowheresville of Crawford than did he. The “Reagan Ranch” in the Santa Barbara Mountains was not really a ranch at all, but a rustic hovel, and the videos of Reagan in his early seventies, chopping wood amid burrs and stickers, with sweat spots under his arms, were not faked. In contrast, the elder Bush liked boating off his family estate in Maine — and was flayed for being a bit too happy with his seaside, preppie-sounding Kennebunkport mansion.