Friday, April 15, 2011

Independents' Day

Barack Obama's job approval has matched his presidential low, according to Gallup's three–day tracking poll.

As Michael Memoli and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times, that could be attributed to "gas prices, the budget debate, or simply the usual ups and downs of public opinion polling."

And it is true that some presidents receive something of a "bounce" in popularity after their parties experience a "shellacking" in the midterm elections. It is usually understood that the recipient of such a bounce will come back to earth.

That bounce comes around at different times for different presidents. But there have also been those presidents like Lyndon Johnson who won by wide margins, then saw their parties go down in flames in the midterms and ended up not running for another term.

In Johnson's case, he was elected by a landslide in 1964, but his party lost a ton of seats in Congress in 1966, in no small part because of the public's souring on the Vietnam War. Shortly after the midterms, LBJ's popularity was a respectable 48%, but it seldom got that high again, and he dropped out of the race in 1968.

Obama's bounce came shortly after the midterms, but it seems to have peaked rather quickly and is making its way back to earth.

There's a cautionary tale in there for the president, I think. A president must seize his opportunities while he can.

In those roughly six months in late 2009 when the Democrats held a filibuster–proof majority, they chose to wield their power on behalf of a Supreme Court nomination that was in no way threatened and the health care reform bill — and alienated, I believe, many Americans who may have, at one time, identified with one of the parties but now call themselves independents.

Independents have been part of the political landscape all along, but most of the time they have represented a fairly small portion of the electorate.

Many of those independents, especially the newer ones, had misgivings about Obama but were willing to give him a chance because they were disappointed in (or discouraged by) Republican leadership. And many independents opted to give the Republicans a chance in 2000 because they were disappointed in (or discouraged by) Bill Clinton's leadership.

If their numbers are growing, it is because they are increasingly disenchanted with all politicians.

Now and in the future, it seems to me, presidents can be less certain of the continued support of those who voted for them in the last election. For many more people than was true when I was a child, the last election simply does not equal a long–term commitment.

Be that as it may, Gallup says Obama's decline in job approval is most pronounced among those who call themselves independents. Gallup doesn't discuss the portion of the electorate that says it is independent. But it reports that Obama's average in that group was 48% between 2009 and 2011.

Thus far in 2011, his approval among independents stands at 44% — and, even more ominously, Obama's approval among independents between Tuesday and Thursday of this week (a period that includes Obama's speech on fiscal policy on Wednesday) is — wait for it — 35%.

A president who has recently launched his campaign for re–election (nearly a year before the first presidential primary) should sit up and take notice of numbers like that.

Gallup's raw numbers underscore the polarized political climate in which we live. A Democratic president enjoys high approval numbers from Democrats (although they aren't as high as they were). He also receives low approval numbers from Republicans (lower than they were, but, frankly, they couldn't drop too much).

Everything hinges on the independents.

The situation was the same for Republican George W. Bush, who emerged the winner of two close presidential races, and Democrat Bill Clinton, who never got a majority of the popular vote in spite of winning by landslides in the Electoral College, as it is now for Obama.

The faithful in both parties give their knee–jerk approval to and march in lockstep obedience behind their leaders, defending the indefensible.

But they can't win by themselves.

And, as Charlie Sheen could tell you, it's all about winning.

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