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Obama Lost, Obama Found

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Illustration by Jason Lee  

The precariousness of Obama’s position should be no mystery to his people, for rarely has there been a collection of political talent more attentive to public-opinion research. Though Obama, like countless candidates before him, promised to govern “not by polls but by principle,” his campaign employed six pollsters and probably conducted more surveys and focus groups than that of any presidential aspirant in history. Most every Wednesday night since Obama took up residency at 1600, David Axelrod, another of his senior advisers and his longtime message guru, has convened a handful of those same number-crunchers to run through the data they are avidly (and constantly) collecting across the country.

The results of Obama’s private polling are a closely guarded secret, but it’s hard to imagine that they vary much from what the public research, which is remarkably consistent, shows. The central dynamic in play was summed up neatly in mid-November by the folks at Quinnipiac University. In the same poll that first found that Obama’s approval rating had slipped below the median, fully 74 percent of voters said that they like him as a person, while only 47 percent approve of his policies. “This is a country that … given our problems, had a long rope for the president,” the Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who along with Democrat Peter Hart, runs the NBC–Wall Street Journal poll, said at a conference recently. “They want a successful presidency … [but] there are really growing concerns and doubts.”

The specifics of those qualms come through loud and clear in other national polls, which peg Obama’s support at below 50 percent on virtually every significant issue facing the country: the economy, unemployment, Afghanistan, Iraq, health care, immigration, and the deficit. Equally troubling, Obama’s overall job-disapproval ratings are now in the mid-40s; since Dwight Eisenhower, the only president with numbers that high at this early stage in his first term was (gulp) Bill Clinton.

Historically, it’s true that disapproval ratings almost always move in lockstep with the state of the economy, and with the unemployment rate in particular. But even beyond Obama’s tremulous ratings on non-economic issues, there are other warning signs lurking in the digits. According to Gallup, a year ago, in the wake of Obama’s election, a roughly equal number of voters expected him to pursue “mostly moderate” and “mostly liberal” policies. More recently, 54 percent say that he has governed from the left, with just 34 percent saying he’s done so from the center. In the same poll, the percentage of people that believe Obama is keeping his campaign promises has fallen 17 percent since April, from 65 to 48—a perception shared to a similar degree among Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

The persistence of Obama’s sky-high personal popularity in light of such statistics owes much to the president’s magnetism and soothing mien. But it also derives from his White House team, which is chockablock with campaign operatives and loyalists—Axelrod, Jarrett, press secretary Robert Gibbs, senior adviser Pete Rouse, deputy chief of staff Jim Messina—at once highly skilled at and deeply devoted to buffing Obama’s image.

“You’ve never had a White House with this sort of political horsepower at this level,” says Stuart Stevens, a Republican media savant who played a key role in the election and reelection of George W. Bush. “Rahm Emanuel is a political operative. Axelrod is a guy who makes TV spots; he’s a PR guy. They’ve really studied the iconography of the presidency and invested themselves in it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But it influences everything.”

Both the strengths and weaknesses that Obama’s team has brought to the table in the White House were on vivid display during the campaign that propelled him into office. And they map precisely to the divergence between Obama’s Q-rating and the troubles he is running into regarding his performance and agenda. Obama’s bid was famously, brilliantly long on thematics and atmospherics—on his vague but inspiring promise of change and of lowering the temperature on the partisan conflict that had consumed the capital during the previous sixteen years—as well as a set of sharply drawn contrasts with his main opponents. That Obama was neither a Clinton, a Bush, nor a Bush successor was essential to his appeal.

But Obama’s was not a candidacy, to put it mildly, in which substance played a starring role—though the problem was subtler than the claim that his run was a policy-free zone. “What struck me about the campaign is what I like to call ‘the missing middle,’ ” explains the Brookings Institution scholar Bill Galston, who was among the architects of Clinton’s New Democratic creed in 1992. “Up here there was the riveting rhetoric, and down here a series of reasonably well-crafted, intelligent, and serious policy prescriptions. What was missing in the middle was the connective tissue that might be called the theory of the case.”


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