President Obama’s popularity, measured in opinion poll approval ratings, has been sagging badly lately, to the considerable benefit of the Republicans’ election prospects this year. Democratic candidates are almost universally avoiding identification with the president and his policies; one Senate candidate even refused to say whether she voted for Obama in the last presidential election.
I find this somewhat puzzling. Of course, there is a core portion of the electorate that has always despised Obama and would always find reasons to do so. But Obama did after all get elected twice with the support of a majority of the electorate (an achievement that eluded Bill Clinton). His approval rating when he was re-elected was at 49%, according to Gallup. Hardly enviable, but how do you explain that he now can barely hold the approval of 40%? Whatever his shortcomings, I don’t think there is a reasonable way to argue that his performance has been so abysmal as to justify the alienation of such a large percentage of his former supporters.
It’s surprising to me, too, that while everyone talks about the president’s unpopularity, I haven’t seen anyone among the various bloggers, pundits and pollsters I read who has made a serious, probing attempt to explain it.
Part of the explanation undoubtedly lies in people’s need to personalize their discontent. When things are going badly and the causes of the malfunction are poorly understood, you look for a scapegoat, and the most obvious scapegoat is the guy who is ostensibly running the country. And things certainly have not been going well in our country in recent years. The economic recovery has been excruciatingly slow, and even though it has picked up recently, perceptions tend to lag reality. Washington has been mired in gridlock, and while the public recognizes that the Republicans are part of that picture (approval ratings for Congressional Republicans have been even lower—usually much lower—than for Obama) the president gets part of the blame. More recently, the Secret Service screw-up, ISIS and Ebola have escalated our national sense of insecurity, and again, who can you blame if not the man on top?
I wonder, though, if there is more to the explanation. In a previous post, I concluded that racism is undoubtedly an important part of the intense, irrational hatred that gets directed at Obama from the right. But I suspect that the broader readiness to blame Obama reflects a continuing residual racism in this country that is more subtle and complex than the hard-core racism that animates outright Obama hatred. The softer racism that I’m talking about is even consistent with having voted for Obama. He was able to get a near-majority of the white electorate to vote for him even in 2012, but that support was perhaps for many white voters highly conditional: a black man in the White House simply has less margin for failure than a white man. We gave the black guy a chance, and now it looks like we were too generous, because look—he hasn’t performed. Maybe we shoulda known better.
I have no hard evidence for this; really, I’m just groping for an explanation, and I’m curious to hear readers’ views. Why is Obama so unpopular?
On a completely different note: my wife’s business trip to Israel, put off due to the events of July, has been re-scheduled. Again, I’ll be tagging along. We leave Saturday, for a week. I don’t know if I’ll be blogging from Tel Aviv, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about after I get back. My one regret about this trip is that I won’t be able to follow Tuesday’s election returns, but maybe that’s just as well, given the bleak prospects.