Why Are Obama’s Numbers Falling?

The Republican strategist and Democratic pollster in their biweekly face-off about Election 2012

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama pauses while speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on March 13, 2012

Penn: The sobering numbers coming from the polls the past few days show that to win re-election, President Obama must do more than simply ask for another four years to let his policies work. He has to make a major leap into the center to deal with the volatility coming from the record number of independent voters in the electorate. His job approval is at 41% in the latest New York Times/CBS poll and 46% in the Washington Post/ABC News poll.

The developing storyline was that an improving economy mixed with a divided Republican electorate should have shot President Obama’s numbers sky high, putting the race out of reach for the Republicans. But the public wants to see more than just job growth — they want to see President Obama grow in the job. They are concerned that difficult situations in Iran and Afghanistan are raising the stakes on who occupies the Oval Office, as his foreign-affairs numbers dropped 10 points in New York Times/CBS poll. And while the fight over contraception coverage energized the base, it also revealed a more divided electorate on the issue than expected when it comes to rules for religious institutions.

(MORE: Justin Frank: How Barack Put Bibi in the Corner)

I have to admit, I was ready to say that the President had turned the corner based on recent events and that his campaign seemed to have reached a more even footing compared with the rocky and chaotic Republican primary. But numbers like these send you back to first principles: 1) the President has to keep working to overcome doubts about his leadership by being a President first, not a candidate; 2) he has to move more decisively into the center, which means less about raising taxes and more about streamlining and modernizing government; and 3) he has to run on a forward-looking and comprehensive economic plan that deals directly not only with spending but also with trade, immigration, energy prices and a host of other issues holding the country back from real economic growth in the 21st century.

Americans remain moody and pessimistic about government and everyone in it; however, they remain open to President Obama. These unexpectedly low polls serve as a warning sign that he has to keep searching for the right key to the door of re-election.

(MORE: Justin Frank: Will Obama’s Continued Silence Hurt Him Politically?)

Hughes: Gas prices and federal budget deficits are rising, and so are tensions in the world. If they aren’t already, alarm bells should be sounding at President Obama’s campaign, because these two new polls, the New York Times/CBS News and Washington Post/ABC News, show Americans are not at all happy with the way the President is dealing with those issues and are deeply worried about the President’s performance — or more accurately, his failure to perform — both at home and abroad. These polls are the most recent reminder of just how vulnerable the incumbent President is during this election year.

According to the Washington Post/ABC News poll, by varying degrees, more Americans now disapprove than approve of not only President Obama’s overall job performance (50%-46% in Washington Post/ABC, 47%-41% in New York Times/CBS) but also his handling of every single issue tested, from the economy (59% disapprove to 38% approve), to the situation with gas prices (65%-26%), to the federal budget deficit (63%-32%), to energy policy (48%-38%). Even in foreign policy, which had until recently been a relative strength, Americans disapprove of the way President Obama is handling the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons and the situation in Afghanistan.

Tensions abroad and a still struggling economy at home are a toxic combination for the President’s ratings. Despite some recent mildly positive economic news (though unemployment remains a stubbornly high 8.3%), three-fourths of Americans rate the condition of the national economy as “fairly” or “very bad.” And Americans have lost confidence in President Obama’s ability to make good economic decisions, with 51% saying they are either “not too” or “not at all confident.” Almost a third of all voters now say they are “not at all” confident in the incumbent President’s ability to make good economic decisions, by far the biggest vote of no confidence during his entire presidency. Likewise, his handling of the deficit is at an all-time low, with 63% of Americans — and a whopping 70% of independents — disapproving.

(MORE: Hughes and Penn: Has Newt’s Challenge Hurt Romney or Made Him Stronger?)

If I were in my old job in the West Wing, I’d be looking for ways to show the President taking dramatic and decisive action to deal with growing federal budget deficits and rising gas prices. The price of gas is an especially visible “kitchen table” issue. It impacts people’s wallets and their psyches, with the bad news heralded at every pump on every street corner. Americans believe there are things (more domestic drilling, anyone?) that a President can do about gas prices, so the political consequences of inaction tend to be harsher.

This week’s polls are especially significant because they reverse what had been a trend of gradually rising numbers for President Obama — and given that the vast majority of political coverage has been focused on the ongoing primary fight among Republicans, that reversal is particularly striking. As the Republican primary process continues to unfold, this week’s poll numbers clearly show just how much the Republican nomination is worth fighting for — just how vulnerable President Obama truly is.

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