Politics & Policy

Obama’s Real Problem

Why the president's poll numbers have declined.

According to a popular myth, President Obama’s declining poll numbers are a consequence of his failure to be liberal enough. On race, in the wake of the Shirley Sherrod mess, we are told he needs to appoint more African Americans and bring in more advisers from the black community. On the economy, liberal economists decry his unwillingness to borrow and stimulate more.

This is lunatic in political terms.

Obama’s poll numbers are falling for three reasons clear to any amateur student of politics.

#ad#First, the voters in 2008 did not vote for liberal change, but for change from the costly and lengthy Bush wars, deficits, spending policies, and immigration proposals. Obama voters were also motivated by a desire to elect our first African-American president, fear over the September 2008 financial meltdown, a lackluster McCain campaign, and the strange perception that Obama was a centrist.

Since his election, Obama has outdone the average Bush deficits by a factor of four or five. His brief “stimulus” became the prelude to a gorge-the-beast reordering of American society. Meanwhile, after demagoguing as a candidate everything from Guantanamo to Iraq, Obama in office has kept in place almost every major security protocol that Bush had established. He has broken his promises to close Guantanamo, try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York, and pull out of Iraq. This has meant alienating his shrinking base while being exposed as a hypocrite to suddenly wiser and less forgiving independents.

Second, after ramming through his health-care bill without either bipartisan support or public approval, Obama is polling badly on just about every hot-button issue. The electorate simply does not want cap-and-trade, amnesty, more deficits, and higher taxes. Rather, it prefers to produce more oil and gas, and more hydroelectric and nuclear power; it wants to follow the Arizona immigration model; it wants to cut spending; and it wants to balance the budget.

The Left may be disheartened that Obama has not borrowed more for green-energy subsidies, has not yet rammed through an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and has not spent more money trying to stimulate the economy. But these are not the reasons that Obama is sinking in the polls. Indeed, a good way for Democrats to lose both the House and the Senate would be to use the health-care model to push through amnesty and cap-and-trade legislation before November.

Third, the problem is not that Obama is insufficiently attuned to race, but that he is perceived (fairly or unfairly) to be obsessed with it. Since 2008, both Barack and Michelle Obama have committed a series of gaffes that appeared to reflect an attachment to identity politics. Taken together, these divisive musings have fostered the impression that the first couple is excessively concerned with racial issues.

In terms of Obama’s appointees, no one forced Van Jones to brag of his earlier Communist sympathies; to get involved, even tangentially, with the 9/11 “truthers”; or to say that white teens are more likely than black teens to be mass murderers, and white adults more likely to be polluters. The Left may see Jones as a sacrificial lamb, perhaps deserving of an Ivy League sinecure; but the public was glad to see him go, and even more relieved to see him stay away. Beyond Jones, the comments made by Anita Dunn, NASA chief Charles Bolden, “documented or not” Hilda Solis, and Donald Berwick certainly have not made the case that Obama needs to bring in more hard-core liberal ideologues.

Indeed, to use a rather brutal metaphor, Obama has planted throughout his administration a number of far-left time bombs. On any given day, one of them can go off. A dozen or more may very well implode before the November elections.

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By the time the public learned that Shirley Sherrod had really delivered a speech about class divisions and the culpability of the rich rather than a racist diatribe about the culpability of whites, she had managed to evoke slavery in Jesse Jackson fashion. As the week ended, her husband was on YouTube peddling the same old tired racist cant with a very thin progressive veneer. One unmentioned lesson from the Sherrod saga is that the public does not want to hear federal agricultural officials weigh in on either racial or class activism in front of national advocacy groups.

If Obama appoints more advisers and officials primarily on the basis of race, he surely will not see a sudden rise in his approval rating among independent voters. A talking head on MSNBC may be outraged that we did not initially hear Sherrod expand on why she is no longer a racist in sincere and conciliatory terms. But the public might wonder why she admitted to being one in the first place — and how dividing people on the basis of class rather than race represents a significant moral evolution.

#ad#In terms of poll ratings, Obama is in poor shape, but not necessarily in poorer shape than various past presidents who eventually were reelected. His problem is not, as he alleges, that he inherited a worse mess from Bush than Reagan did from Carter or Bush did from Clinton. Nor is his problem that he slightly deviated from his left-wing hope-and-change rhetoric and disappointed his base. His problem is more fundamental: It is one of self-knowledge.

Obama and his supporters have somehow convinced themselves that 2008 was the result either of (1) a left-wing American majority that finally came out of the shadows, or (2) a mesmerizing personality that by sheer force of rhetoric and charisma could take America where it otherwise did not wish to go. Neither is true. America remains a center-right country, and Obama, the teleprompted messiah, has grown tiresome. If the president wishes to recovery politically, he must embrace a responsible, workmanlike centrist agenda, just as Bill Clinton did between 1994 and 1996.

Obama can choose to be a successful triangulating Clinton, or he can insist on being a failed ideological Carter. As the November election draws closer, those bad and worse choices will become even clearer to the president and his liberal supporters.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

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