Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from Ari Melber’s opening remarks at "Obama: Change We Can Believe In?," a panel discussion with The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, the New York Times’s Gretchen Morgenson, Politico’s Ben Smith and professor Benjamin Barber on March 9, 2010. The panel was sponsored by The New York Society for Ethical Culture, Demos and The Nation Institute.
There is a famous New Yorker cartoon that shows a bride and groom rushing down the steps of a chapel, surrounded by a boisterous crowd throwing rice. The groom is turned towards his new wife, and he says: "Have you ever had that feeling, where you want something so bad, and then as soon as you get it, you don’t want it anymore?" It’s not a question you want to hear on your wedding day.
And it’s not a good question for Barack Obama. But I think it applies to him in at least two ways.
Number one, he answered it for himself, because he ran on "fundamental reform" and the "fierce urgency of now," and then he got into office and has been leading in a much more managerial and technocratic way. I think whatever your ideology, there is little doubt that his approach has been working within the rules of Washington, not fundamentally changing them.
That’s why we hear so much about cloture and reconciliation and filibusters–the old rules that continue to bind him, and unfortunately, the rest of us. As journalist Fareed Zarakia recently observed, Obama is often more prime minister than president.
Meanwhile, that wedding day question is also percolating among the public. A lot of us are starting to answer it as well, after tremendous enthusiasm about Barack Obama. Americans are increasingly skeptical of Obama’s presidency–and some supporters are even developing buyer’s remorse.
Overall, his job approval is now under 50 percent, from a high of 65 percent last May. That’s lower than the past three presidents at the same point in their first terms (though higher than Reagan and Carter).
Within his base, Obama is facing increasing criticism from liberal members of Congress, progressive commentators and a host of grassroots and issue groups who feel the administration has been to cautious in its approach to healthcare, jobs, Guantánamo and foreign policy. Influential voices like Paul Krugman, Rachel Maddow and Glenn Greenwald frequently criticize Obama’s leadership.
While the media’s latest obsession with gossip about Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is trivial, it does reveal one thing. Many Washington Democrats’ discontent has helped them override their natural state of fear, and move into outright criticism of this powerful enforcer-in-chief for Obama.
So perhaps tonight, our conversation may begin with this stormy narrative: A plodding President facing skepticism from supporters and opponents alike.
Unless, of course, everything I just said is totally wrong.
In that case, we can think about one other theory. It’s also possible–and you’ll hear this from Obama defenders–that his early performance has actually been overly parsed and under-appreciated. That while his role has been more emergency responder than populist visionary, he dealt with the financial crisis ably; and dealt realistically with a sclerotic, corrupt Congress; and he’s working on a much more long-term plan for real progress on foreign policy.
If you look at the public opinion data, while I just cited some of it, there is an argument here that we are simply experiencing this administration in a different environment. That maybe it is not the citizenry that is jittery but our ADD-addled, scandal-driven political discourse, lurching from cable news fights to blog attacks and fixating on partisan complaints that have a half-ife of about half an hour.
In fact, when you dive into Obama’s approval numbers, there is not really much attrition among his base. (Despite what you may have heard.)
About 80 percent of Democrats continue to back him. In fact, that partisan support is so strong, Gallup issued a report noting that Obama had the "most polarized" first year of any president in history–more than George W. Bush.
The reason for that is while Republicans tend to be uniformly opposed to Democratic presidents, Democrats aren’t always in lockstep. So Clinton had a lower approval among Democrats at this point, while Obama has more intraparty unity, which is why he’s netted this most polarized rating ever.
If you click through some other demographics: by age, Obama’s young supporters are still in his corner. He has an average approval of 66 percent for voters under 30–9 points higher than any other age group. By race, 91 percent of black voters approve of Obama’s job performance. And by ideology, Obama still does best on the left. 79 percent of self-identified liberals approve of his job performance, a figure that drops to 60 percent for moderates and 30 percent for conservatives. Same on education, Obama does best among Americans with postgraduate education.
So despite all the talk, I don’t know that Obama has a problem on the left. He may have a problem on the Upper West Side left. But it’s not necessarily all of the left.
Under this theory, Obama is doing remarkably well holding onto that coalition he built. And it’s not really a surprise that, during a recession, he’s facing disapproval from independents and the Republicans who were never that warm toward him to begin with.
In this narrative, you can put a little more of the blame on the way we talk about and consume politics today. We have an information diet larded with scandal, snark and sideshows. So like America’s children, we are overfed but undernourished. What I’m trying to say is we’re fat.
But the cost is real. If you care about fundamentally reforming Washington, or the things Obama talked about, and everyone thinks he’s in more trouble than he is, and Congressional Democrats think they need to run for the hills, then even less will get done. So as we work through these theories, they have real ramifications–even if one (or more) of them are dead wrong.