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Tilting at Windmills

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April 19, 2011

IS HOPE A PLAN? AT THIS POINT, IT HAS TO BE.... Apparently, when the public is feeling frustrated, dour, and pessimistic, a president's poll numbers start to sag. With that in mind, the new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows President Obama's approval rating down to 47%.

Driving the downward movement in Obama's standing are renewed concerns about the economy and fresh worry about rising prices, particularly for gasoline. Despite signs of economic growth, 44 percent of Americans see the economy as getting worse, the highest percentage to say so in more than two years.

The toll on Obama is direct: 57 percent disapprove of the job the president is doing dealing with the economy, tying his highest negative rating when it comes to the issue.

The electoral news wasn't all bad for the president. For example, no one seems especially impressed with the Republican field, and Obama leads all of them in head-to-head match-ups, most of them by double digits. For that matter, Reagan and Clinton were in similar shape at this point the year before their re-election bids.

But the key takeaway from the poll is that the gap between what the public cares about and what politicians are focusing on has become a chasm. The discourse is dominated by talk of spending cuts and deficit reduction, while Americans are focused primarily on economic growth and job creation.

What's more, I'm not sure what, if anything, Obama can do about it. It's way too late to start shifting the debate from the debt to the economy, and even if the White House launched an ambitious jobs policy, it wouldn't stand a chance in Congress.

When it comes to economic policy, the best -- the very best -- we can hope for is a president who'll stop Republicans from making matters worse, and maybe a reluctant Federal Reserve that might want to play a constructive role.

Otherwise, the White House has to simply hope the economy continues to improve on its own, which may very well happen, but which now appears to be out of the president's hands.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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It's way too late to start shifting the debate from the debt to the economy,

Ummm...No, It's not. Obama and the Dems should decide what they want to propose, and propose it, instead of continuing to merely react to the GOP proposals.

Posted by: bignose on April 19, 2011 at 10:48 AM | PERMALINK

the key takeaway from the poll is that the gap between what the public cares about and what politicians are focusing on has become a chasm. The discourse is dominated by talk of spending cuts and deficit reduction, while Americans are focused primarily on economic growth and job creation.

This is what you call an 'underserved market.' Most Americans want a political party that will focus on economic growth and job creation, but zero of our two major parties is interested in serving that political market.

If pluralities weren't sufficient to win elections in this country - if the absence of a candidate with a majority resulted in a runoff - then it would be easy for a third party to move into this vacuum, and (at a minimum) force the Dems to serve this market, or become this century's Whigs.

But since the effect of a third party addressing these concerns would be, paradoxically, to elect Republicans, the Dems can kowtow to the moneyed interests rather than the voters, knowing that we center-left types would rather eat a shit sandwich with only a thin layer of shit (i.e. vote Dem), than a shit sandwich with the shit piled high (GOP).

The option of not eating shit at all is apparently unavailable at this time, thanks to our stupid political system.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on April 19, 2011 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

I think the price of gas has an negative effect on Obama's ratings.

I suggest he take on the oil and gas companies.
He could start by having someone investigate why the price of gas is now almost the same high rate as right after Katrina.
At the time, the oil companies blamed limited capacity due to damage to coastal petroleum processing plants. Oil rose to over $140 a barrel.
Well, prices are almost as high now, and oil is only a little over $100 a barrel.

Start to find a way to break up these cartels. There is no reason, beyond rank speculation for gas prices being this high when oil is less than $110 a barrel.

Also, get started on a Manhattan Project for energy.
You can fund this with existing money by eliminating tax breaks for the oil companies and applying that money to the project.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on April 19, 2011 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

Obama is at the top of the heap, so he gets blamed, no matter if others are more at fault.

Posted by: Hannah on April 19, 2011 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

The ccomplicity of the whole media sector and nearly all political elites in the effort to shift taxes and benefit cuts onto the middle class and poor while retaining tax breaks for the wealthy is nothing short of scandalous. The McClatchy poll is clear that the people don't want this but the elites do and they look like they will get their way, with people fobbed off with shiny new devices and entertainments. This is not a recipe for stability, but no one seems to really care.

Posted by: Mimikatz on April 19, 2011 at 10:58 AM | PERMALINK

Only problem is, I bet when we eliminate subsidies, they will raise gas prices,claiming that is their only choice, and we would be able to do nothing.

Posted by: Michael on April 19, 2011 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

Well, the Administration still has control over the exchange rate, and could use a dollar devaluation to provide an expansionary impulse to the economy.

Posted by: Rich C on April 19, 2011 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

"Obama is at the top of the heap, so he gets blamed, no matter if others are more at fault." Posted by: Hannah

My lawn is full of crabgrass- and has bare spots! I blame Obama.

Posted by: DAY on April 19, 2011 at 11:15 AM | PERMALINK

It is NOT 'way too late' to shift the discussion back to jobs and the economy -- go on the offensive and force the GOP leadership to explain why budget cutting in DC is more important than jobs back home. Talking deficits and budgets is stupidly playing into the GOP's hands -- it's their playbook.

IT'S THE ECONOMY, STUPID -- man, that sounds familiar for some reason............

Posted by: chuck dc on April 19, 2011 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

Damn, this is about as hard to refute as George Soros, given that Obama obviously prefers SimpsonandBowles, Robert Rubin's handpuppet Geithner and the Gang of Six to, well, George Soros.

And coming minutes after the first good news I've heard in weeks. Alex Pareene of Salon reprinted Politico's front page today just to prove how lame they are, and down at the bottom was "Christie Vilsack to take on Steve King in Iowa."

Maybe Obama can run on her coattails.

Posted by: ericfree on April 19, 2011 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Am I missing something? His approval ratings have been in the same narrow range (upper 40s for both approve and disapprove) since the beginning of 2010. The recently downturn isn't particularly significant, and it's probably due to gas prices. I don't see a lot of evidence that anything has changed.

Posted by: RP on April 19, 2011 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

Completely agree, RP. Taking seriously mild fluctuations in polls is a mug's game. Like you, I'd guess if anything it's the spike in gas prices causing the flutter, and I think that'll level off way before Nov. '12.

Obama has stayed in decent range in most polling (excluding the laughable Rasmussen) despite the deep recession. Barring a true double-dip, his numbers should ease upward over the next year, as Reagan's and Clinton's did. (I don't think Reagan nudged over 50% until 1984 had dawned, so Obama's ahead of him in that regard). Given that, even while Obama's numbers are below 50%, poll respondents instinctively place him above any GOP challenger, I think he's in excellent shape for easy re-election.

Posted by: demtom on April 19, 2011 at 11:46 AM | PERMALINK

"...even if the White House launched an ambitious jobs policy, it wouldn't stand a chance in Congress..."

With due respect to Steve, I think the fact that a jobs proposal wouldn't stand a chance in Congress is beside the point.

Look. Republicans know how to get motivate their base by fighting for things that, in the short term, don't stand a chance. By motivating their base, election after election, Republican policies do stand a chance in the long-run.

Dems need to take a page out of the GOP playbook, and fight for their ideas, even when their ideas don't stand a chance. The result will be that a)their base will show up on election day, and b) they'll grow their base...dramatically.

Posted by: Chris on April 19, 2011 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK


On gas prices, well, sorry. Any nation that's even faintly serious about energy policy needs to put huge taxes on nonrenewable, imported energy, especially on a particular form of energy that we consume in amounts far greater on a per-capita basis than any other advanced country. But doing so is apparently at least as much of a third rail as Social Security.

Posted by: Tom Marney on April 19, 2011 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

Another day another the POTUS is a completely impotent figure head in DC column from SB. Why even bother even trying to change the dialog in DC. Better to just go along with the Wall St agenda and propose spending cuts and more spending cuts, but just a bit less spending cuts than the craaaazzy Republicans.

Why bother to fight for job creation? I mean it's so hard and the Republicans are so so mean and crazy. Those stupid voters want job creation. Let them eat spending cuts instead. Great strategy.

Posted by: Vince on April 19, 2011 at 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

The truth is, for the average person individually, things are getting worse. I haven't had a raise since 2008 (and it was pretty damn puny then), people on Social Security haven't seen a COLA in two years. And gas is up 25% in three months. And then there's food, where prices in my neck of the woods are a good 20% up from where they were as recently as Thanksgiving, according to the store receipt I found over the weekend while doing house cleaning.

They can talk about all the jobs they want - most of which are worse jobs than the ones they replace, service industry Mickey-D jobs instead of jobs with a future and a good paycheck - but for those of us who still have jobs, we're going round and round, circling the bowl as they say. I can see all kinds of reasons to not like the situation. And the President and the Democrats screwed the pooch badly enough last year that the only way they're going to save their asses is to campaign against the wild-eyed idiots who got in back in November. But that of course will take a backbone, and I still don't see Obama doing much more than rhetoric. Sorry.

Posted by: TCinLA on April 19, 2011 at 12:00 PM | PERMALINK

I read some Republicans asserting that when asked about high gas prices Obama said people should get hybrids, when the correct answer they wanted was "drill baby drill" as if that would immediately drive down gas costs and address longterm energy and environmental needs.

Posted by: former curm on April 19, 2011 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

Thank you RP! I saw the headline that his poll numbers had PLUNGED so I clicked on it and they were down a couple of points. Who ARE these people they poll? And when they ask the questions do they ask WHY the peeps are pissed off? No...that's ANOTHER poll to spin any way they want to. The Dems need to own the debate. So if the President wants to turn it to the economy he CAN. Do it NOW. WHY does he have to follow the GOP on the debt when they are lying anyway? He gave a speech, laid out part of his plan and should now be out talking the specifics and how it will affect JOBS and the ECONOMY and oh BTW will drive down the debt.

Posted by: SYSPROG on April 19, 2011 at 12:04 PM | PERMALINK

It says it all about American politics that even though their policies carry the very real threat of losing power and their phony-baloney jobs, elected Democrats cannot find it in themselves to even PROPOSE policies that voters would like if it means countering the wishes of the wealthy.
They'd rather lose than challenge the people they know rule them.

Posted by: JMG on April 19, 2011 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

What is fueling the economic pessimism is NOT jobs right now but HIGH GAS PRICES. A month ago Obama's approval rating were higher and what has happened in the past month was a run up on gas prices.

Posted by: Maritza on April 19, 2011 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

Buck up there trooper... While the Polls may not be amazing at this point there is plenty of reasons to be hopeful... 1) the economy is improving, 2) the groundwork the democrats laid the past two years is bearing fruit, 3) Obama may not be perfect but is a really good President, there are no scandals or very strange people in his admin, 4) The Republicans have abandoned the minority, youth, and poor vote and only Romney may be credible against Obama.


QUEEN Victoria would be embarrassed by the the current trends in increased American inequality of income, Republicans are not.  Sell-outs to big money all, the Republicans voted for Paul Ryan's proposed budget which would destroy Medicare and cut taxes for the wealthiest. 

It's all very fine if you can like the upper class cover health costs out of pocket, but for the rest of us we know if they operated in the public interest their admin costs would be 3% like Medicare not over 10% as now, nor would they have raised rates in a recession.

To solidify the trend, The Republican Supreme Court gave corporations pre-20th century influence in politics. Many other Republicans would  continue the march backwards and stop unemployment insurance, repeal the minimum wage, or like AZ Governor Jan Brewer jail undocumented workers in privately run prisons at state expense.

I admire many things about the 19th century -- abolition of slavery, intellectual curiosity, the progressive movement, neo-classical architecture, workers rights but not mid-Victorian prejudice, greed, morality, and states rights arguments, the worst of the 19th century, which our post modern era Republicans seem to admire.

The Republicans would kill that which made our society great, the best of the 19th century- a movement up and up in terms of societal cooperation, income equality, human rights, a strong federal system, public education, and a spirit of scientific exploration all values set into law and American tradition Republicans would repeal but which the rest of us love.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on April 19, 2011 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

the last paragraph reworked a tad....

The Republicans would kill those values which made our society great, the best of the 19th century- a movement up and up in terms of societal cooperation, income equality, human rights, a strong federal system, public education, and a spirit of scientific exploration --  values set into law and American tradition, values Republicans would repeal but which the rest of us love.


Memorize and repeat.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on April 19, 2011 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

I think this is the time for Obama to get partisan, even hyper-partisan. Because he keeps reaching out to a party that a: continues to brand him as un-American, perhaps ANTI-American, and b: continues to push an agenda that a clear majority of Americans reject - from privatizing Medicare to focusing on social issues and the debt instead of the economy and jobs and so much more - voters don't see a clear enough divide. No one to root for, unless you're a Tea Bagger. The speech Obama gave last week where he rejected Ryan's proposals was a nice start, but I fear he won't use that moment to gain any sort of momentum. Ditto the "open mic" moment that no one seems to believe wasn't planned but at least he was saying, for a moment, what any of us have been thinking.

The time, NOW, is to count some heads, extract some promises, and try to unite as many Democrats as possible - those sitting in Congress who aren't running for re-election in '12, the incumbents who WILL be running in '12, and those who aren't in Congress and planning to run. Reach out to the State Senates. Work on, if not a complete agenda, then at least a few bullet points that all agree are what they will run on.

And then, they run on it. As one gigantic party, to a degree, unified on some common goals, without any DINOs extracting concessions for those goals. If there are any Dems who don't want to run on that platform, then it is incumbent to the incumbents, for once, to shut them out and find Dems who will run against those naysayers in a primary. And make sure the nation knows about it, because apparently we need a super-duper majority in the Senate, as well as a majority in the House and the Presidency, for anything to happen. And even then, the Supreme Court might find it unconstitutional.

Obama's biggest flaw, as far as I'm concerned, was assuming we had his back as he attempted to please people who took pride in not being pleased by him. Now he needs to redirect his efforts towards pleasing the dems and the left-leaning indies, and the low-info supposedly moderate moderates who, poll after poll after poll, agree with the things Dems claim to have on their agenda. A concerted nationwide effort, where Dems stand as united as they ever have been on a platform, and hammering home the point that they need to have as many Dems in Congress as possible to be successful, stay on topic, and attack every awful idea the GOP has in its arsenal, we just might get somewhere.

Ah, who am I kidding? Cuts for Social Security in the name of bipartisanship, here we come!

Posted by: slappy magoo on April 19, 2011 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

I'm beginning to wonder about WaPo polling. They were the only non-wingnut poll to show similar numbers of people blaming Obama and Congress if there was a shutdown. The paper, itself, is making a big deal out of his small dip in the polls. Those tools know nothing about numbers.

Posted by: Rich on April 19, 2011 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Two more years of GOP control of the House might open people's eyes. I am not predicting the sky is falling yet.

Posted by: ET on April 19, 2011 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

It's the economy stoopid. Obama gave a terrific speech last week, and all of us moonbats were gratified that he smacked Ryan around pretty good, however, until his administration gets serious about jobs, there will be no helium in his poll numbers. He should be sending a jobs bill per week over to the Senate or the House for their consideration. Yes we know, Republicans have everything to gain by blowing up the economy and won't take up a single piece of legistaltion, unless it weakens another union. It's just that as long as his focus is on the deficit, the Rs control the debate. Instead of making his case for deficit reduction, make the case for jobs and letting the BushTaxCuts(tm)expire. Everyday talk about jobs, talk about the obstructionists, talk about infrastructure. Make a big deal out of jobs bills getting killed (job killing). Everyday Jay Carney can start off his press briefings by informing the Washington Press Corps that Boehner, Cantor et al, killed another jobs proposal. Talk.About.Jobs.Every.Single.Day.

Posted by: bcinaz on April 19, 2011 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

First read via Political Wire:

[The president's speach] might not have played well. For one thing, and this is true going back to the '08 campaign, Obama usually doesn't get rewarded when he comes off as too partisan (even though the left loves it). More importantly, last week's speech was on a topic -- the deficit/debt -- that most Americans don't find as important as the economy/jobs.

I'm pretty sure the analysis is off. More likely the president is taking some poll damage from the recent budget deal.

He lost some support on the left because of the (excessive & pathological) fretting over "caving" etc. He lost some support from centrist / independent voters when it was reported that the deal only cut 500 mil $, and the deficit getting a lot of news coverage.

But even if I think First Read are wrong, it's worth noting that Obama, with his speech, did exactly what is often suggested by netroot commenters, he wielded the bully pulpit. I have a hard time imagining how he could have done it more efficiently than he did.

It was necessary for him to address the deficit, to disarm the attacks on him (and democrats), and now that is done. The Ryan plan will likely act as a convenient target from now until november '12.

Yet, on it's own, the immediate results of the speech are likely to be meager, in swaying public opinion in the short term.

And that could be a learning moment, where we take the time to remind ourselves that even though we are democrats and cursed to always dream of a magical JFK or MLK hero that tells it like it is from the podium and makes all our dreams come true, that is not actually how it works in the real world, and never has.

- What the president says and does is no substitute for grassroots doing hard work. Focus on the family is effective and that's why Huckabee & Palin can say repulsive stuff on tv and not risk backlash. We are not always that effective in what we do, and when we suffer the consequences we should not whine and try to deflect responsibility on our figurehead, only makes us loose out even more in the long run.

- The president did as always a great job in reframing the public debate, reminding us of the history that led to the current deficits, meantioning that it would not be advisable with to much austerity in the short run, reframing empathy and progressive taxes and services as patriotic etc.

But other actors can often advocate so much more efficiently than the president. Rush Limbaughs, Glenn Becks and Bill Kristols can be effective in moving the goalposts of what is common knowledge because it's not such a big problem for them if they overreach on any one particular issue, and even more importantly, it's not such a big problem for the republican party and the conservative movement if they do. But if the president does, it is.

- Getting progressive voters to the polls is a good way, and convincing progressive voters to stay home is a piss poor way, to set the agenda. Whatever we might tell ourselves, votes delivered sets the agenda. Arguably the main factor why the news is all deficit, deficit, deficit while polls say the public is all jobs, jobs, jobs, is that republicans just won 70 house seats running on deficit, deficit, deficit. You cant argue with the facts, and if you spent the whole last year duping weaker intellects to stay home november 2010, arguing they would thereby "send a powerful message that we demand a public option moving the Overton window", this is the time to be honest and admit that what was delivered was the own goal of the century, nothing else. Write 100 times: "My name is Jane Hamsher and I know jack shit about anything except bullshitting me some sycophants".

Posted by: Danny on April 19, 2011 at 5:30 PM | PERMALINK

Other commenters have suggested that Obama should push a jobs agenda on the Hill even though it has no chance of success. In fact, he already has. There is no way to really measure how much the presidential bully pulpit has been cut down in effectiveness in recent years, but that seems to be what has happened, or Obama just does not know how to use it well. The Obama folks have a jobs plan, a plan for economic growth, and an energy plan--all pretty sensible and mainstream--and they should appeal to mainstream voters. Look at the president's speech in Los Angeles before the 2010 election and you have to wonder, Why are people not really listening to Obama on the economy? Why is a sound message not really getting through? Is it too complex? He is trying to get a message out, but it may just be too diffuse to sink in. Or it may be drowned out by Charlie Sheen and Donald Trump. Obama has some solid jobs ideas--and they surely look better next to the nothing offered by his opposition--but, do people know this? Do they realize he is trying to move the economy forward, but it cannot be achieved as fast as people would like. He really cannot force the unemployment numbers down by waving a wand. He has to go through Congress, and the public. But his good message is not resonating so that there seems to be a clear choice between parties. We saw it with last week's speech, which was very good, but soon lost in the multimedia noise.

Posted by: wesfromga on April 19, 2011 at 11:43 PM | PERMALINK


My two cents on your questions:

- Why does the bully pulpit seem to be less effective than we thought?

It was never that effective in itself. As an excercise let's imagine a republican president that tries to use the bully pulpit to advocate a constitutional amendment to outlaw the death penalty. Would he be effective? Not likely. The effectiveness of the bully pulpit depends on how receptible the public is to the message, if the narrative has already been established with them, etc.

- Why are people not really listening to Obama on the economy?

The economy has been very bad, in fact we had the worst recession since the thirties. Furthermore, conservatives have been effective in pushing their conventional truths of small government and lower taxes as the solution to every problem for 30 years now. It is the usual wishful thinking on the left to expect all that hard work from the right to be blown away by a nice speech by O and what some posts by progressive bloggers. Obama will get more traction with his speeches, WHEN AND IF the economy has already improved further. IF he gets reelected next year. IF the deficit moves slightly off the radar. But it will be much easier for that to happen when progressive pundits and grassroots start to wisen up and realize that their job is to:

1) Always target the general public, as well as the base. It can be done without diluting the kosherness of whats being said, just look at how the right is successful.

2) Pave the way for leading democratic politicians. Progressive pundits and grassroots need to bring progressive narratives to the public and get the public to consider them. Then half the job is already done for the politicians and they dont have to take stupid risks of backlash (i.e. advocating more deficit spending in the current political environment, without knowing that the public will be on the level).

3) Mobilize progressive grassroots AGAINST CONSERVATIVES. ALWAYS get the base to the ballot box. ALWAYS get the base to voice and manifest their opinions speaking for all americans. Keep morale high. ALMOST NEVER bitch on democratic politicians, ONLY do so when there is a feasible primary at hand and an election win can plausibly be delivered, OR when someone needlessly breaks party discipline (Lieberman). If there's an issue where principled opposition must be voiced, do so in a principled manner, state your beliefs, don't make it about betrayal or dissapointment. If the conservative position is much worse (as it usually is) spend ample space on describing it and note what will happen if it is allowed to prevail. In other words does liberals do to little fretting and handwringing? You know the answer. Be part of the solution.

4) Maintain message discipline. This goes for pundits AND grassroots. If it is important for you to see progressive policies implemented, this is necessary. It may feel much nicer to get to think up a contrarian angle to every issue and get to keep some indie cred, but as should be bleedingly clear by now the tea party morons get a platform for some truly awful stuff by being complete tools and spouting off kocher talking points that may be inconsistent and worse. That's because power by numbers works and being indie is counterproductive when you want to manifest your beliefs of what's right on the world.

Posted by: Danny on April 20, 2011 at 6:41 AM | PERMALINK

I'm sure Jeffery Immelt will help President Obama figure this out!

Posted by: Francis on April 20, 2011 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK
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