As much as some in the media try to spin things otherwise, a pair of recent year end polls point to trouble for President Obama.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that Obama’s reelect number against an unnamed Republican candidate was 42 percent. And, in hypothetical matchups against Republicans like former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and South Dakota Senator John Thune, Obama polls consistently under 50 percent. The poll found that the only Republican challenger against whom Obama managed to break 50 percent is Sarah Palin (the president beats her by a 55 – 33 percent margin according to the poll).
Additionally, a just-released Harris Poll found that 64 percent of Americans regard Obama’s job performance negatively – his lowest job approval figure ever – compared to 36 percent who took a positive view. Obama had lost ground since the previous Harris poll was taken in November. Most interesting to me: 69 percent of Independents viewed Obama’s job performance negatively, and only 68 percent of Democrats gave him a positive assessment.
As we all know, polls are snapshots of moving targets, and it is foolhardy to try to glean too much from any single one. According to Gallup, President Reagan began 1983 with an approval rating of 34 percent, yet won overwhelmingly less than two years later.
Still, I think it is fair to make a few brief observations:
- Any incumbent president should be regarded as the electoral frontrunner in his own reelection contest. Seven men have been elected president since 1968. All faced major challenges while in office, but only two lost their reelection bids. The fact is that Obama remains personally popular, and enjoys the institutional advantages of the biggest bully pulpit in the nation. I personally do not believe he has yet mastered the job enough to use the office as effectively as some of his predecessors did – including Ronald Reagan. But he still retains the basic institutional tools and the time needed to improve his own fortunes.
- The Journal/NBC poll demonstrates that Obama can be beaten by the right Republican. Determining who that Republican is remains a tough question to answer. Some potential candidates (e. g. John Thune) are so relatively unknown that polling them seems a meaningless exercise. Others (e. g. Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin) seem to be carrying political baggage left over from the 2008 campaign. I personally would like to see the GOP buck its historical proclivity for nominating the candidate who came in second place last time in favor of an ambitious and charismatic governor with new energy and fresh ideas. There are several governors out there who could meet those criteria. I’d like to see one jump into the race, waging an excitement candidacy that scrambles the political landscape the way Obama did for the Democrats in 2008, when they were poised to nominate establishment candidate Hillary Clinton.
- Public Policy Polling tested Obama’s standing in several key swing states, and found that Obama seems to be holding his ground in many states he carried in 2008. These results are to be expected for an incumbent president who remains personally if not politically popular, and for whom no consensus challenger has yet emerged. Still, Obama won several states in 2008 that he is going to have a very tough time winning again, including
North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, Nevada, and . Other recently reliable Democratic states – such as Florida Pennsylvania and – could wind up in play next time if the results of the midterm elections are any indication. If all of those states flip, that brings Obama's electoral college total precariously close to the 270 votes needed to win. Michigan
Obviously, the economy remains the biggest X factor. It will drive the polls faster than any prospective candidate does. A rebounding economy could help Obama, but there is no guarantee it will do so. Obama’s problems stem not merely from the economy, but also from the perception that he often seems overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the job. Working with the new Republican Congress affords him both the challenge and the opportunity he needs to prove he is up to the task.