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That Sinking Feeling

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December 10, 2009

President Obama must have thought that a regimen of constant speechifying on television would maintain his popularity.  While enduring criticism from his fellow Democrats after his most recent speech on December 8, Obama must be aware that the poll numbers show how his continuous oration strategy is not working.  During these desperate economic times, the voters — even Obama’s own supporters — want more than speeches.  On December 1, poll results released by Rasmussen Reports not only revealed that the President’s approval rating sank to 48 percent — his disapproval rating actually reached 52 percent!  On December 9, Quinnipiac University published the results of a poll conducted during December 1 – 6.  The results gave the Preisdent a job approval rating of only 46 percent, and those disapproving Obama’s performance amounted to 44 percent.  Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, discussed the results:

“President Barack Obama’s job approval rating continues to slide and it’s evident the deterioration stems from voter unhappiness over domestic policy matters,” Brown added.

American voters disapprove 54 – 41 percent of Obama’s handling of the economy, down from a 52 – 43 percent disapproval November 18 and his worst score ever on this issue.  The biggest shift is among Democrats who approve 71 – 24 percent, down from 77 – 18 percent three weeks ago.

The biggest drop in Obama’s overall approval is among independent voters, who disapprove 51 – 37 percent, down from 46 – 43 percent disapproval.

Although the health care issue had an impact on the poll’s results, the Quinnipiac team found that the deterioration in support for Obama resulted from those favoring the public option, despite the spin effort in many quarters to suggest that the poll revealed dissatisfaction with the public option itself:

Voters disapprove 52 – 38 percent of the health care reform proposal under consideration in Congress, and they disapprove 56 – 38 percent of President Obama’s handling of health care, down from 53 – 41 percent in a November 19 survey by the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh- pe-ack) University.

But voters support 56 – 38 percent giving people the option of being covered by a government health insurance plan, compared to 57 -35 percent November 19.

The Ipsos/McClatchy Poll, taken during December 3 – 6, gave the President an even 49 – 49 percent split on his approval rating.  The interesting segment of these results was the breakdown on voter satisfaction concerning particular issues.  That section of the poll revealed that Obama received his highest “unsatisfactory” rating on the issue of  “jobs and the economy” with 45 percent giving the President an unsatisfactory grade (D or F) while only 36 percent gave him a satisfactory grade (A or B) and 19 percent gave him a C.

The disappointment expressed by Obama’s supporters concerning his handling of the economy was not limited to polling results.  Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration, wrote a piece for his blog on December 8 entitled:  “The Preisdent’s Job Initiative Doesn’t Measure Up”.  Reich was not alone in his assessment of Obama’s performance to date:

No president in modern times walks a tightrope as exquisitely as this one.  His balance is a thing of beauty.  But when it comes to this economy right now — an economy fundamentally out of balance — we need a federal government that moves boldly and swiftly to counter-balance the huge recessionary forces still at large.

Reich implied that the time for the “balancing act” is over.  It is now time to solve problems:

The word in Washington is we’re out of the woods.  The rate of unemployment dipped from 10.2 percent in September to 10 percent in October.  In our nation’s capital, a one-month trend marks a turnaround.  Don’t believe it for a moment.  The real story of October was the increasing number of Americans who dropped out of the labor force, too discouraged even to look for work.

Whether or not one agrees with Reich’s proposal of spending $400 billion over a two-year period to put people back to work, even Reich’s opponents would likely agree with his assessment of Obama’s initiative:

We don’t know exactly how much the President is proposing to spend, but sources tell me it’s in the range of $70 billion, redirected from the $200 billion in TARP savings.  The President’s small, calibrated attempt to balance a stimulus with deficit reduction will in fact make the deficit worse over the long haul.  It postpones the day when we’re back to near full employment, when almost all Americans who need a job get paychecks on which they pay taxes.  This isn’t really balance at all.   It prolongs the economic imbalance.

At The New Republic, William Galston wrote a piece entitled “Obama Has a Problem Prioritizing his Agenda” which he began by discussing the importance of timing:

Timing is to politics what location is to real estate.  Good policy ideas are useless if the time is not right.

*   *   *

But the larger point is that the president is beginning to realign his agenda.

But he’s just beginning.  To complete the pivot and make 2010 the year of jobs, two other things must happen.  First, the White House must fully integrate the jobs focus into the president’s schedule.

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Second, the legislative agenda for 2010 must reflect and reinforce the renewed focus on job creation.  That means postponing items that the American people are bound to regard as diversionary as long as unemployment remains high.

*   *   *

Great presidents from Lincoln to FDR have understood that “now or never” is the ultimate false choice in politics.  All too often, now means never.  The “fierce urgency of now” should be reserved for what is truly urgent.  As for the rest, patience is more than a virtue; it is a necessity.

On of my favorite centrist commentators, Dan Gerstein of, wrote a piece on Wednesday entitled:  “Obama Not Cutting It On The Economy”.  Although Gerstein began by complimenting Obama on his “balancing act”, he moved on to focus on the absence of “hope and change” promised during the election campaign.  As we have seen, Gerstein was not alone in emphasizing the need to immediately address this problem:

Indeed, we’re confronting an unprecedented combination of grave economic challenges that, while not as immediate as the financial collapse we avoided last fall, may be more consequential.

Gerstein explained how Obama’s initiative is a step in the right direction, but just a step, nonetheless:

The modest job-creation proposals the administration unveiled Tuesday individually have their merits, and they seem much more mission-focused than the mish-mashed stimulus bill that Congressional Democrats constructed.

*   *   *

That’s because the new jobs plan was not designed to be a policy game-changer but a political stopgap, to tide the public over and buy the White House time for the second half of the stimulus plan to kick in.  They are betting the national farm — soy beans to servers — that the old stimulus combined with the new “stimulus lite” will provide enough demand to spur enough new hiring to calm the country.

Gerstein provided a good explanation of the core difficulty the President faces in tackling the multitude of problems arising from the economic crisis:

This unwillingness to make tough decisions strikes me as arguably the worst leadership failure of the Obama presidency.  That’s in large part because cutting outlays and shifting resources would be such a relatively easy lift in this environment.  For starters the federal government is filled with programs and set-asides that are either outdated, wasteful, largely symbolic or designed to serve narrow interest groups.  And the administration (not to mention many think tanks) has already identified dozens of suitable targets in budget hit lists.  No one would be better positioned than Obama, given his baseline support on the left, to call for the elimination and reduction of programs that we can’t defend as national priorities at this moment.

*   *   *

This was the great missed opportunity of the president’s speech — the watchdog that didn’t bark.  He could have done more than repackage his economic policy; he could have helped restore public confidence in his leadership and our shared future.  Instead, the juggler-in-chief did the opposite of his Afghanistan speech — he settled for the safe play and in doing so dropped the most important ball.

That’s great advice!  If only the President would listen to it.

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