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Obama's Electoral Paradox

Two new public polls out this morning, from NBC/WSJ and the Washington Post, illustrate the curious nature of President Obama's electoral standing. The top-line number is completely abysmal. Obama's approval rating sits in the low 40s, at a point in his presidency when, as the Post notes, Presidents Reagan and Clinton were both over 50 (and both enjoying strong economic recoveries.) Historically, that number tells you most of what you need to know about the president's fate in the next election.

However, Obama's continuing political paradox is that he remains at once quite unpopular by absolute measures and highly popular by relative measures. The approval rating for Republicans in Congress is far worse -- just 28% approve, against 68% disapproval. And Obama still hangs in there against the Republican leaders:

[I]n a hypothetical general election contest, Obama leads Texas Gov. Rick Perry by five points, 47 percent to 42 percent. And he leads former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by one, 46 percent to 45 percent, though that margin is down five points since June.

One explanation for these paradoxical results is that Obama now has a serious problem with his base:

The sense of deflation is particularly apparent among Democrats, with nearly two-thirds saying things are pretty seriously off on the wrong track. The percentage of Democrats saying things are headed in the right direction has cratered from 60 percent at the start of the year to 32 percent now.
For the first time, fewer than half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 give the president positive marks. Young voters broke overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008, but just 47 percent of those under age 30 now approve of the way he is doing his job; just as many disapprove.
Fewer than three-quarters of Democrats approve of the president.

This looks like a large segment of the electorate that likes Obama, wants him to succeed, is skeptical that he has succeeded or will succeed, but still favors him over the Republican opposition. This is a key chunk of the electorate -- voters who disapprove of Obama's job performance but still prefer him over the Republicans. Can Obama mobilize them? A Rick Perry nomination probably wouldn't hurt.

The WSJ/NBC poll also underscores the degree to which Obama's position in the debt debate commands overwhelming support vis a vis the Republican position:

In the poll, 60 percent say it would be acceptable if the "super committee" considers reducing the deficit by ending the so-called Bush tax cuts for families earning $250,000 or more per year. Moreover, 56 percent say it would be acceptable if it considers reducing the deficit by a combination of tax increases and spending cuts.
By comparison, just 37 percent believe it’s acceptable for the committee to reduce the deficit by only cutting spending and not raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy. And only 20 percent say it’s acceptable to lower the deficit by reducing spending on Medicare.

A deal to "resolve" the long-term deficit problem carries some obvious problem-solver upside for Obama. But taking the issue off the table would have a serious opportunity cost, as well. His best issue is to make the election a contrast in priorities -- his preference for shared sacrifice over the Republicans' cuts-only approach. Indeed, this is also his best opportunity to demonstrate to voters what they have to legitimately fear from the prospect of Republican control. Maybe Obama should make a deal if he can obtain favorable terms, but the calculation is far from clear.