Reports last week that President Barack Obama leads Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the polls are confounding many Republican analysts and Obama critics. Nationally, the Real Clear Politics average shows Obama up by almost 4 points, and polls in a dozen battleground states show him leading in 10, by margins ranging of 2-8 points, and Romney up in only two. How is Obama doing it? Given his record, what is keeping the president afloat politically?
The litany of Obama failures is by now all too familiar: unemployment over 8 percent in every month since Obama took office; weakest economic recovery in modern U.S. history; $5 trillion added to the national debt during his term so far, with trillions more to come if we don't change course; the downgrading of the U.S. credit rating. Even his signature domestic accomplishment—Obamacare—is so widely unpopular that the Democrats only dared refer to it obliquely during their convention. And in foreign affairs (an area in which voters give him better marks), Obama's critics see a trail of weakness, fecklessness, "leading from behind," and retreat—of which the burning of our consulate and the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Libya are but the latest, most tangible reminders.
So what's going on? Why are so many American voters seemingly willing to "give Obama a pass" at this stage of the campaign? Why the indications that they might give him another chance come November?
Many explanations have been offered, ranging from Obama's likeability to suggestions that he's being protected—again—by the mainstream media. Romney's detractors charge that Romney's weaknesses are the explanation. And obviously 'Obama-crats' claim that his record of supposed 'successes'—"GM is alive and Bin Laden's dead" was the pithy summary at the convention—provides the answer.
I'd like to offer three other factors that may be supporting Obama's polling numbers.
Cool. A dozen years ago, after the Florida recount, Michael Barone used a particularly apposite phrase at a Heritage Foundation program—and perhaps elsewhere in his voluminous writings—in describing the undeclared 'culture war' that's been raging for four decades in American society. He called it a contest between "the beautiful people and the dutiful people." In this election, there's no question which candidate represents which camp. Obama is clearly the candidate of the 'smart set'—the media and entertainment elite, celebrities, academics and intellectuals, and gays, as well as traditional Democrat constituencies. By contrast, Mitt Romney is clearly the candidate of the traditional values coalition, of the business community (and particularly small business), and of advocates of fiscal responsibility.
But, above all, Obama is cool—certainly to many younger voters, to urban audiences, to those who want to be 'hip.' Romney—and the constituencies he represents—are exactly the opposite. Being 'cool' helps Obama, I'm convinced—and so far Republicans and conservatives haven't found the antidote for 'cool.'
Race. In voting for Obama in 2008, many independent and cross-over voters were clearly motivated by the opportunity to perform a 'righteous act'—to make an electoral choice that at once promised to propel America into an era of post-racial—even post-partisan—politics while helping to exorcise the specter of racism that's haunted American society for generations. If Obama's race helped him—certainly with these voters—in '08, it would be a reasonable hypothesis that it might desert him as an advantage four years later. With a disappointing record of performance on the economy—the 'pocketbook issues' that famously determine so many voters' choices—it would be logical to expect that, having performed their 'righteous deed' four years ago, these voters could now safely vote for more competent management—for a candidate offering to deliver better results to their individual 'bottom line.'
But not so fast. It may well prove to be that, for many of these voters, they can't see themselves deserting Obama despite his poor economic performance and other short-comings. To desert him now may, for them, actually vitiate the 'righteous act' they performed four years ago. If so, Obama's race may enable him to turn his failures into his own 'insurance policy.'
What difference does it make? All around us, in recent years, we've seen the indications—and the dividends—of the consequence-free society. This has two manifestations—both corrosive. One is the fatalistic sense that, no matter what choices we make—particularly about public life—nothing will end up being very much different. This is either because the 'system' is rigged or it is so enormously complicated and beyond individual control or influence that you'll get the same outcome no matter what you do. The other is the (rather adolescent) lesson that, no matter what bad choices you make—e.g., getting over-extended on personal debt or making risky but rewarding financial deals with other people's money that later threaten to bring down the entire economy—if your predicament becomes a big enough political problem, someone or something will come along to bail you out—and your life will go on more or less undisturbed.
This, predictably, introduces into the logic of everyday life a very dangerous question: What difference does it make? A lot of individual—and corporate—decision-making in recent years has had this question lurking as an ingredient of the choice. And that's whether it applies to signing up for a too-big student loan to go to a too-expensive university for one-too-many degrees, or to the purchase of a too-big house with a too-big mortgage, or to plunging into a series of too-risky deals or trades that turn out to backfire on your company's share price—or on the entire economy.
But it's a persistent question—because, lately, we've developed the habit, as well as the means and mechanisms, for insulating ourselves from the consequences of our mistakes.
Which brings us back to Obama's poll numbers. If today it's more important to be cool than to be competent; if the moral motive of a choice outweighs the tangible measures of performance and concrete results; and if, in any case, 'What difference does it make?' becomes the yardstick for expected outcomes … well, that thinking will really boost Obama's poll numbers despite his miserable record in office.
Which makes Mitt Romney's task all the harder. He has to find a way to break through the ingrained irresponsibility that is increasingly our contemporary reality. He has to redouble his efforts to drive home the point, made repeatedly during the Republican convention: The stakes for America's future in the 2012 election could not be higher.