No matter who wins the presidency on Tuesday, one outcome is all but certain: Barack Obama will draw less support and fewer votes after four years as president than he did as an untried, little-known, freshman senator from Illinois. In other words, the more the American people know about this particular politician the less they seem to like him.
Republicans and Democrats offer opposing explanations for the president's decline in popularity.
For the GOP, his lost backing demonstrates a failed presidency, with a truly disastrous combination of arrogance and incompetence.
For his loyal supporters, the fall-off in enthusiasm for the rapturously acclaimed liberal messiah of 2008 stems from the relentless war against him by his implacable opponents in right-wing media and Congress—an opposition rooted in extremism and racism, and culminating in character assassination and obstructionism.
Democrats worry that incessant assaults on the president have subtracted just enough from his standing with the public that he could lose the election; Republicans fear that blind loyalty to a bitter, flailing leader could leave him with just enough support so that he could win.
Both sides, however, apply the same distorted focus to their evaluation of the Obama presidency: concentrating almost entirely on the last two years of gridlock and polarization while forgetting all about the two years of one-party rule in 2009 and 2010.
The story of the first half of the president’s term of office doesn’t fit with either party's chosen narrative.
Democrats like to ignore their total dominance of the government during that period because they seek to escape all responsibility for the miserable economic conditions that still prevail in much of the nation. They don’t want reminders that Obama came to power with no need for Republican cooperation and that he made no serious effort to secure it: with filibuster-proof control of the Senate (60-40) and a crushing majority in the House (256-178), he could pass Obamacare without a single Republican vote and enact his stimulus package with the approval of no GOP House members and only three senators.
This recent history hardly comports with the Democrats’ chosen emphasis on GOP obstructionism: in that first half of the Obama term, Republicans managed to obstruct virtually nothing, as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid pushed through all of the president's most important legislative and budgetary priorities. Their problem wasn’t a lack of achievement, but rather the dubious nature of those achievements, with deeply disappointing results for the national economy and the daily struggles of ordinary Americans.
Republicans, for their part, like to ignore the legislative triumphs of Obama’s first two years because those successes argue against their portrayal of a floundering, impotent, inept, and small-minded chief executive with no grand vision for the future: the second coming of Jimmy Carter. This portrait bears no connection with the self-confident president with a bold agenda who quickly assumed the levers of power and forced through an impressive parade of liberal legislation.
In other words, Republicans don’t want to talk about the Obama of the first two years because to do so would remind the public of how potent and masterful the president once looked. Democrats want no discussion of that previous period because it would highlight the depth of the administration’s decline, and the continued diminution of an Incredible Shrinking Presidency.
Each party, ironically, prefers to concentrate on the last two years, despite the undeniable public disgust with the insoluble logjam and poisonous polarization in the Capitol.
Democrats prefer to emphasize Washington’s realities after the big Republican sweep of November 2010 brought John Boehner to power because that situation in D.C. makes it easier to blame someone other than the president for the painful predicament of high unemployment and trillion-dollar deficits.
Republicans—especially Tea Party Republicans—also like to stress the last two years as a period when they stood up for conservative principles and managed to stop the Obama agenda in its (costly and federally subsidized) tracks.
The dueling narratives both recognize that the American people feel deeply dissatisfied with the present state of dysfunction. Democrats contend that it could have been even worse without the president’s moderating influence on the crazed extremists of the Tea Party. Republicans maintain that it will only get better when an incompetent executive leaves the Oval Office.
To strengthen their argument, the leaders of the GOP should highlight the other side’s discomfort with recent history: while the president finishes his campaign with churlish invocations of the ravages of “Romnesia,” his most devoted supporters display some serious memory lapses of their own. Not only do they ignore and obscure the extent to which the president dictated the agenda in the first half of his term, but they distort the extent to which his victory of four years ago represented some sweeping mandate.
Barack Obama defeated John McCain with 52.9 percent of the popular vote—a solid margin, but hardly a crushing or lopsided result. The Electoral College margin (365 to 173) hid the fact that many of the crucial states were close: a switch of barely 600,000 votes in the right states (less than half of 1 percent of the total electorate) could have given McCain an electoral-vote majority and the presidency.
That’s why the Democratic concession that Obama will command a less resounding victory than last time looms as so supremely significant. For one thing, no prior president has ever won a second term with less support (in both the popular vote and the electoral college) than he won the first time.
No, Barack Obama doesn’t need to win every single vote he got in 2008 in order to earn reelection, but he most certainly needs to recapture the vast majority of them. That’s especially true in light of the important evidence of a recharged and energized Republican base that will turn out in much greater numbers than four years ago.
If, for instance, the president wins only 90 percent of the votes he drew four years ago he is almost certainly a goner. In other words, if only one in 10 Obama backers from last time decides to stay home or switch their support, then the commander-in-chief becomes the “one-term proposition” he himself described.
The polls indicate that attitudes toward the president remain precisely on the cusp: the great majority of those who supported him four years ago still admire him, or at least excuse his shortcomings. The surveys also make clear that in four years of leadership he has failed to win new support, and lost some backing in almost all demographic groups.
It is precisely the scope of that lost backing that will determine the outcome—and an accurate reading of historical precedent makes this president more than likely a loser.