Thursday, July 30, 2009

On a First-Name Basis

CNN Senior Political Analyst Gloria Borger reports that it was "jarring" to hear members of a focus group refer to the president by his first name.

But, she continues, "the more they talked, the more it made sense. After all, they are seeing a lot of him." There is, as pollster Peter Hart said, a "sense of intimacy" when people speak about the president in this way.

It seems to me that Americans rarely have felt that kind of easy familiarity with elected leaders in the past. It more often has been seen with movie stars (i.e., Marilyn) or rock stars (i.e., Elvis and Bono). I know that lots of folks referred to Eisenhower as "Ike," but I was a toddler when he left the White House so I don't remember anything about him. And that was a nickname Eisenhower got while a student at West Point. He had been known as "Ike" for a long time before he ran for president.

There may have been a tendency for people to call President Kennedy "Jack," but I don't remember because I wasn't in school yet when he was assassinated. And my family didn't own a TV while he was alive so I didn't have the daily exposure to Kennedy that others had.

I recall most references to Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, as being the more formal "President Johnson" or the acronym "LBJ" — but I remember my grandfather speaking disparagingly of him as "Landslide Lyndon."

Grandpa was a Texan, but he was no Johnson fan. When he called Johnson "Landslide Lyndon," he used a nickname that was hung on Johnson when he won a disputed Democratic primary race in Texas for the U.S. Senate in 1948 by a mere 87 votes.

Most often in my life, people have called presidents by their first names (or variations on their first names) in a negative sense. My father, for example, always called Richard Nixon "Tricky Dickie." And I knew people who referred to his successor, Gerald Ford, as "Jerky Jerry." Near the end of his presidency, I heard non–Southerners speaking of Jimmy Carter in a faux Southern accent — "Jimmuh." And we all recall how people used the pronunciation of George W. Bush's middle initial — "Dubya" — when referring to him throughout his presidency.

I don't care if people want to call Obama "Barack." Heck, they can call him what he used to call himself when he was a teenager — "Barry." It doesn't matter to me. As Shakespeare put it, what's in a name?

What matters to me is results. I've seen a lot of effort made for bipartisanship, but Obama has little to show for it. Right now, he is gambling a lot on health care reform. Health care is important, but there is a clear gap between Obama's personal popularity and the refusal of Americans to embrace the policy.

I'm sensing the gradual closing of the window of opportunity for him to accomplish some important objectives, like health care reform. And then there are things — like same–sex marriage and marijuana legalization — that polls show many of his supporters want but Obama has not indicated that he supports.

Polls, of course, are nothing but snapshots of opinion at a particular time, but Gallup is picking up on some erosion in his support. Nothing major right now, but a trend can be seen. And history says these things can quickly get out of hand, even for presidents who were elected by wide margins. Remember Bill Clinton and the Democrats in 1994? How about Ronald Reagan and the Republicans in 1982?

And, for you older folks out there, do you remember when Lyndon Johnson was elected to a full term in 1964? He got the biggest share of the popular vote that any presidential candidate ever received. But his party was hammered in the midterm elections two years later.

Obama is still enjoying high popularity with the under–30 crowd — but those people haven't established themselves as reliable voters yet. The over–65 voters do have that reputation, but Obama's support in that demographic group has slipped below 50%.

And there are some other troubling numbers as well. In the last month, Obama's support is down by seven percentage points in the Midwest; down by nine percentage points in the fastest–growing demographic group, the Hispanics, in spite of having nominated a Latina to the Supreme Court; by nine percentage points with voters who report having had "some college" education.

I'm not saying that Obama should pander to these groups. But as long as he is taking time out of his schedule to have a beer with Professor Gates and the police officer who arrested him, he could toss a bone to the people who got him elected.

Whether they call him by his first name or not.

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