Mon | Feb 6, 2023

Obama sails into headwinds

Published:Monday | March 19, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Just a few weeks ago, United States President Barack Obama appeared to be coasting to an easy election victory later this year. The all-important economic indicators - growth, employment, incomes, spending - were rising. As expected, that was driving up his poll numbers. Since bottoming last year, his job-approval figures had been steadily climbing.

Meanwhile, the limo that would chauffeur the president to victory was being polished up by the Republicans. Its Hatfield-and-McCoy primary was ripping the party to shreds and depleting its funds. Candidates eager to attract votes campaigned ever harder on the right, vying to make Attila the Hun look like a liberal, and in the process driving away moderates. Then someone got the clever idea of talking about birth control, and the next thing you know, independent women were running screaming into the Obama column.

Finally, to top it all off, the putative Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney, took every opportunity to remind us that the Republicans are the party of fat cats. His ham-fisted efforts to connect with the common man - like trying to make NASCAR country like him by pointing out he has rich friends who own racing teams, or trying to form bonds with auto workers by pointing out his wife drives a couple of Cadillacs - have been hilariously off-mark.

Yup, it all seemed like a shoo-in. Then suddenly, mysteriously, the president's approval figures turned south. So, too, did the generic vote for Congress, which appeared to be moving towards Democrats, but recently tilted back towards Republicans. Analysts are scratching their heads trying to figure out what's going on. But it now appears that Mr Obama may not be facing such an easy re-election after all.

Why ratings are sluggish

Conventional wisdom suggests that improving economic numbers should boost a president's re-election chances. Some analysts have attributed the sudden drop in his approval ratings to the rise in gasolene prices. Yet, there is little evidence that presidential approval ratings are shaped very strongly by gasolene prices alone. Real incomes are a stronger determinant, and it is true that they are lagging the improvements in the economy.

Mr Obama's sluggish popularity ratings may prove to be a temporary feature, and things may continue to improve as the year goes on. Nonetheless, his recent spell in the dumps points to lingering problems that will hobble him during the campaign.

One is the fragility of the recovery. If the headlines look good, the stories underpinning them are not so robust. Ordinary Americans continue to feel the pain of the recession. The wealth that was destroyed in the financial crash has yet to be recovered. And they know that sacrifice has not been evenly distributed - that those at the top are still boosting their pay packets, while ordinary folk struggle to make ends meet. That visceral awareness gives them an understanding that the recovery could yet be derailed, especially if gas prices continue rising.

Mr Obama also has a fundamental problem with his base. The euphoria that ushered him into office has dissipated. Many Democrats feel dispirited with the direction of the Obama White House. During the Great Recession, when the government bailed out the banks, the president had a historic opportunity to weaken the hold on power of financial oligarchs.

He chose to do otherwise. He brought back the same cast of Wall Streeters who helped create the mess. They resisted all attempts to get serious with Wall Street. Now that bankers are paying themselves hefty bonuses again and thumbing their noses at Washington, the Obama crew is talking a tougher line. But it's too late, and ordinary Democrats know they missed a golden opportunity.

Will they stay home in November? Perhaps not, if the Republicans nominate someone from the hard right. But many Democrats won't be counting the minutes until the polls open, as they were in 2008. Mr Obama has his work cut out, if he is to win back their love.

John Rapley is a research associate at the International Growth Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science. Email feedback to and