By KEITH KOFFLER
President Barack Obama and his aides say regularly that voters’ unhappiness with the White House and its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill will fade once the economy and jobs make a robust return.
As the country limps out of recession, economic concerns are indeed paramount in voters’ minds.
But Obama and congressional Democrats are deluding themselves if they think reversing the dire economic conditions will be their political salvation. An important part of voters’ anger now is directed at their policies — which are opposed by the public and are galvanizing eager enemies, like the Tea Party.
On issue after issue, Obama has signed legislation at odds with the will of the American people. With an arrogance that can only stem from a profound certainty in his rightness, Obama and his team are conducting a colossal political experiment: testing whether leaders can retain power while governing without regard to public opinion.
When NBC’s Matt Lauer told the president this week, “There's a feeling that, in some way, you have lost touch with the struggles of the average person on the street,” Obama said Americans liked what he was doing and were angry at the economy — not him.
“You know,” Obama said, “the fact of the matter is that as long as unemployment is as high as it is, as long as we haven't recovered as quickly as we should have, people are going to be hurting.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs regularly suggests that the same frustrations with the economy that carried Obama into office now work against him — as if voters were deranged bulls, striking blindly at whoever is holding the matador’s crimson cape.
This White House paradigm is old — stretching back to the famous dictum of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That idea, which turned out to be correct that year, was that a relentless focus on economic matters was the key to winning the presidential sweepstakes.
But Americans are not going to embrace Obama because of the economy if they oppose much of his agenda. Instead of supporting him, they are likely to blame him for the economy’s lingering problems through 2012 — even if we avoid a double dip recession and improvement picks up.
Of the five major policies passed or debated in the last two years, a majority of Americans is not happy with four of them — the stimulus package, federal aid to automakers, health reform and government aid to banks and financial institutions in danger of failing. Only the financial reform legislation is popular with a majority of public, according to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll
All these policies were either approved during Obama’s presidency or supported and administered by him.
On the mounting federal debt, a major concern of voters, Obama has done little to curb discretionary spending. He has yet even to tackle the structural deficit – likely only addressed by cutting Social Security or Medicare benefits, or raising taxes. An ABC/Washington Post poll of early September showed 58 percent disapproved of Obama’s handling of the deficit.
Obama’s regulatory policies are also far from popular. A CNBC poll last week found that 47 percent believe Obama’s effort to increase business regulation is a bad idea. Only 34 percent approve.
Disapproval extends well beyond economic issues. Strong majorities opposed the building of a mosque near Ground Zero, while Obama has refused to condemn it and made statements interpreted by many as supportive of the endeavor.
Voters also strongly disapprove, 60 percent to 28 percent, of the way Obama is handling illegal immigration, a recent Quinnipiac poll revealed. Many more Americans are opposed to the Obama Justice Department lawsuit against Arizona’s controversial illegal immigration law than support it.
Most Americans oppose the administration’s efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Many are concerned that terrorists will find their way into the U.S. prison system. Obama has, so far, failed to shutter the facility -- but promises to keep trying.
Paradoxically, the public would support important issues that Obama has failed to act on; perhaps as strongly as they oppose those he has.
Polls reveal support for strong regulation of greenhouse gas emissions -- a campaign promise that Obama sidelined while he focused on health reform measures. Americans largely agree that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for the military should be scrapped. Obama, despite increasingly vocal protests from gay rights supporters, has failed to end it.
When polls are good, White House advisers point proudly to public approval of the president and his policies. When public opinion is against him, however, these same advisers say that the president doesn’t worry about polls. In Obama’s case -- this might just be believable.
But is it a good thing that the president doesn’t care what the American people think? After Election Day 2010, when many Democrats who backed his policies are likely to fall, he may begin to care.