An uneasy nation is again uneasy with Obama

June 25, 2014 

One question future historians will puzzle over are the curious zigzags in President Barack Obama’s popularity.

As a candidate in 2008, he inspired euphoria among his supporters followed by mild disillusionment over his cautious manner and unwillingness to take the fight to his political opponents. Nonetheless he won re-election in 2012 despite high unemployment and a stubbornly slow economic recovery.

In April, polls showed Obama’s popularity rising, but recent polls show his standing in decline.

The pattern is striking not only for its vacillation but its reasons. For years, Republicans fanned opposition to the president by describing him as a big spender and declaring the Affordable Care Act a disaster that would drive up the cost of health care and depress the economy. But the deficit has declined, the rise in health care cost has slowed and the dreaded “Obamacare” is reducing the number of uninsured Americans.

Beyond those issues, Obama is in step with most Americans on big issues of immigration, curbing gun violence, climate change and getting out or keeping out of military engagements. Yet the tide once more turns against him.

A New York Times/CBS poll released this week found that a majority of Americans are unhappy with Obama’s job performance, with 54 percent giving a negative grade and 40 percent positive. This time, the negative push comes from the president’s handling of foreign policy and the offensive by Sunni Muslim militants in Iraq.

The events in Iraq have brought the George W. Bush-era neoconservatives out for a chorus of second guessing over Obama’s decision to leave Iraq. But that doesn’t quite explain why his numbers have dropped. Most Americans wanted out of Iraq and most don’t want any new troop commitment there.

Some think Obama’s uneven ratings reflect opposition based on his race. Others think Americans can’t warm to Obama’s aloofness and his distaste for the rough and tumble of politics. Both probably contribute to his failure to win wider popularity despite the improving beneficial effects of the Affordable Care Act, a stock market at record highs and a winding down of the nation’s long wars.

The Los Angeles Times report on Obama’s latest swoon said the problem for the president may be less about what he does, than how he is seen.

“The combination of overall disapproval with support on individual issues implies that a big part of the problem Obama faces involves perceptions of his leadership, rather than his specific policies,” David Lauter reported. “Other recent surveys showing public doubts about Obama’s ability to lead the country reinforce that view.”

But the ultimate problem may not be Obama’s perception, but the nation’s mood. Americans are nervous about the economy and dubious about government. While Obama slides, Republicans don’t rise. Congress, gridlocked by tea party forces in the House, has a popularity rating in the single digits.

The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib wrote in a Tuesday column that “Crazy things are happening in the political world” because Americans are shaken by the effects of globalization, alienation from traditional institutions and a reactive pitchfork populism. That’s why a majority of Americans agree with the president but don’t approve of his performance. It’s also why U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, a national Republican leader, can lose to an unknown in a primary.

“It isn’t logical – but logic isn’t the order of the day in the political word,” Seib wrote.

It isn’t logical, but it has effects. Obama is done running for office. The only vote that matters to him is history’s. But his popularity will affect this fall’s elections. With luck, more Americans will feel better by then and confident enough to vote for hope again.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service