Barack Obama Is Struggling as Much as Mitt Romney Is

As history has shown, incumbents aren't really beaten by challengers; they defeat themselves.

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The political shows are awash with commentary on the purported weakness of the Republican field in this election cycle. Well that weakness is apparently also shared on the Democratic side. Whether measured in polls or dollars, President Obama isn't generating a lot of excitement these days. This matters because, as history has shown, incumbents aren't really beaten by challengers; they defeat themselves. 

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Both political parties understand that intensity drives voter turnout in elections. Democratic commentators have been gleeful at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's inability to break certain levels of support, assuming both that they will be facing him in the re-election battle in the fall and that his support will remain mired at about 30 percent among Republicans. What they won't talk about on camera is their own candidate's weaknesses: His signature piece of legislation (the healthcare overhaul) is reviled by many voters and may be overturned by the Supreme Court soon. Poll numbers are tied to shaky recovery and "The One" is having to break a sweat to pull in financial support for his re-election.

Other than the unions, which admittedly are a significant qualifier, we aren't seeing anything approaching the wave of support for Obama that engulfed Republicans in 2008. As Karl Rove aptly pointed out in his Wall Street Journal column last week,  "There are only so many times any candidate can go to New York or Hollywood or San Francisco for a $1 million fund-raiser."  Even though Obama's February fund-raising shows improvement over January's performance, the president is simply not punching at his weight level with donors.  As Washington Whispers's Lauren Fox notes, Obama's February total "is a far cry from his success in 2008 when, in a bitter Democratic primary against then-Senator Hilary Clinton, he raised $56.9 million."

[See pictures of Obama's re-election campaign.]

So what has happened to the billion-dollar-president and candidate? He set the bar extremely high and hasn't cleared it among independents and, to a lesser extent, with his base. After all, then-candidate Obama said, "Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. " Obama once declared that generations from now we would look to his election as "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." He would undo cynicism and doubt and "repair this world". These promises showed profound hubris (which is troubling in itself), but politically there simply was no way results were going to back up such soaring rhetoric. And failed promises disaffect voters of all political stripes. 

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this phenomenon is George H.W. Bush. In the summer of 1990, Bush 41 was enjoying approval ratings of 76 percent. What happened? He flip-flopped on tax increases in a flamboyant manner, dismissing his earlier no-tax increase pledge with the notoriously flippant phrase, "Read my hips"  (a play on his campaign promise of "Read my lips--no new taxes.").

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

This overt flip flop felt like a betrayal to voters and caused then President Bush's approval ratings to go into political free-fall, dropping from a high of 89 percent in February 1990 to a low of 29 percent in July 1992 heading into the election (according to Gallup). 

Now, I don't believe Obama faces this level of angst among his base, but he sure doesn't have them excited. His job approval ratings for this week are at 46 percent  and a new Gallup analysis shows that Americans' views of the economy and of recent presidents' job performance  have been closely related in 2012. This apparently has not always been the case and it underscores the potential fragility of Obama's support.  Moreover, while 24 percent strongly approve of his performance, 41 percent strongly disapprove. This matters because intensity is probably the best predictor of voter turnout.

Obama's campaign is well aware of the enthusiasm gap, hence his 17 minute infomercial released this week that amounts to little more than a pity party. (While watching it, viewers can be forgiven for hearing Linda Rondstadt's inimitable "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" playing in their heads.) Obama's campaign made this play for a reason: They are trying to hit the reset button with their base and explain why it really, really wasn't the president's fault that he failed to deliver on lofty promises.

While we can expect to hear more versions of their "blame the other guy" rationale as the election season matures, Obama will have a hard time with voters because he showed no restraint in the claims he was willing to make as a candidate.  As all candidates know, nothing is more haunting than being confronted with their own words. Case in point:  Obama and gas prices. Despite the fact that it is true gas prices are determined by world supply and demand, Obama will carry the brunt of the political baggage for high prices because … that's what his administration has repeatedly said they wanted.

While the hundreds of millions of dollars unions will pump into the election cycle will undoubtedly make a difference, and the relative strength of the Republican nominee does matter, Obama's biggest challenge is simply put: for many Americans, the thrill is gone.

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  • Updated 3/23/2012: A previous version of this post omitted its final six paragraphs.