Obama’s Puzzling Unpopularity
By By Nayyer Ali MD
With the midterm elections upon us, the Democrats running in competitive races have had one missing partner, President Obama. He has remained off the campaign trails, though he has been raising money at fundraisers. The reason for this is quite simple: his approval ratings are pretty low, with most polls putting him around 42% give or take. This is better than George W. Bush in 2006, but by then Bush had lost most of America between the Iraq fiasco and the botched response to the flooding of New Orleans in 2005.
Obama won reelection relatively easily over Romney, and was the first Democrat to win over 50% of the popular vote in two elections since Roosevelt. So why is he fairing so poorly now?
Objectively speaking, the country is doing reasonably well. Since the economy bottomed at the end of 2009, we have added 9 million jobs to the economy, and more people are working now than before the Great Recession began. Osama bin Laden is dead, and the US has managed to get out of two unpopular wars. The budget deficit has shrunk dramatically, and health care cost increases have slowed substantially. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), despite website troubles initially, has been very successful, and its major provisions are supported by most Americans. The stock market has more than doubled in value, and the auto industry has come roaring back. Corporate profits are at an all time high. Even the housing market has finally rebounded, with the vast sea of foreclosures finally crossed, and house prices rising for the last several years.
Given all that, Obama should have approval ratings in the 50s, and be an asset rather than a liability on the campaign trail. So why is he unpopular? Obama has managed to hold onto his base voters, mostly minorities and liberals in general. But there are several factors that have cost him support among moderate white voters, and perhaps some Latinos.
For Latinos, there remains the unfulfilled promise of acting on the 10 million undocumented residents living in the US. Obama was able to create a compromise that passed the Senate last year with significant Republican support, but the House Republicans have refused to even allow a vote on the Senate bill, and it is basically dead. Obama is making noises about taking some sort of executive action, but he won't do that until the midterm elections, including any runoffs in Louisiana or Georgia, are over with. I suspect he will do something similar to what he did for undocumented residents who arrived as children, namely to remove the threat of deportation and make it legal for them to work in the US. He will probably restrict it to those who arrived here more than a few years ago, but that would be the vast bulk of those in question. Such a move will drive the Republicans completely nuts, but there won't be much they can do about it. However, since he can’t tip his hand, there are a number of Latinos who are disappointed so far in Obama and have lost confidence in him.
Another element holding Obama back is the weakness of the recovery. While 9 million jobs have been added since 2009, about 8 million were lost in the Great Recession, and we are therefore short about 6 years of normal job growth. At full employment, there would be another 6 million Americans working. This army of unemployed has kept a lid on wages, while corporate profits have soared, so for most Americans it still doesn’t feel like prosperity.
Finally, world events have been unfavorable. The chaos in the Middle East, the rise of ISIS and the beheading of American journalists, give many an uneasy feeling. Putin’s bullying of Ukraine makes Obama look bad, though in reality Ukraine has slipped out of Russia’s orbit and Putin has been the real loser now struggling to salvage some scraps.
The midterms ultimately will not decide much. The Democrats have no chance of winning the House, and with Obama still in power, even a Republican Senate can’t do much over Obama’s objections. We are set for gridlock, regardless of whether we end up with 48 or 50 or 52 Democratic Senators. At this point the Democrats have 46 safe Senate seats. There are 9 states that are too close to call, and the Democrats have to win 4 to keep control. Obama’s life will be a bit easier with the Democrats still in charge, but either way not much will change.
The ultimate verdict on Obama is going to be more positive. He will act on the undocumented after the election, cementing Latino affection for his Presidency, and the recent panics about Ebola and ISIS will fade. Meanwhile, the economy is finally pulling into faster gear, and I expect another 7 million jobs will be created before Obama leaves office, a number that will finally bring a genuine sense of prosperity back to the majority of Americans. Obama will go down in history as one of the more significant and successful Presidents.