By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Having come into office with an ambitious agenda to remake America, Barack Obama is discovering that time is not his friend. According to the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, Obama's approval rating has dropped by nine points, down to 55 percent from where it was when he first entered the White House six months ago.
On its own, a nine-point drop over that period of time does not seem like a cause for much concern, especially when a majority of the country continues to approve of the job he is doing. But there are plenty of warning signs within the data, on its own and measured against other presidencies.
A 55 percent approval rating at this point in time puts him in 10th place over all among presidents who have served since Gallup began tracking presidential approval and disapproval in the 1940s. He is less popular than both Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush were at the same period—and they both lost their bids for a second term.
On the other hand, as Gallup points out in its analysis of the data, Obama is more popular now than two-term President Bill Clinton was six months into his administration. But Clinton was a minority president; even though he won the White House twice it was never with a majority of the popular vote. So he didn't have as far to fall as Obama does.
The decline in Obama's job approval number is matched, overmatched really, by a significant increase in the number of people who disapprove of the job he is doing as president. That number is up 16 points—to 41 percent—from the first time the survey was taken during the Obama presidency.
The six-month mark, as USA Today ' s Susan Page explains in her story on the poll, is not "a particularly good indicator of how a president will ultimately fare." But it does say a lot about the prospects for success where his legislative agenda is concerned. From almost the start, Obama the person has polled better than the Obama agenda has. Which means his personal popularity is a central factor in his success, or lack thereof, especially on Capitol Hill.
This is probably the reason he has chosen to take on a first-term Republican United States senator in the debate over healthcare. In political terms, it is somewhat remarkable that Obama has lowered himself to address comments by South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who suggested that the healthcare legislation, if it could be defeated, would be Obama's "Waterloo."
By responding to DeMint, Obama made him his political equal, at least for the time being. It also allowed him to personalize the debate over healthcare, even as the president protested that "It's not about me." If healthcare is about Obama, as opposed to being about healthcare, it stands a slightly better chance of passing in the House and the Senate.
The decline in Obama's approval numbers is being driven by a lack of confidence in the way he is handling four key domestic issues: the economy, taxes, the aforementioned healthcare, and the federal budget deficit. And, says Gallup, "The biggest drop has been on his handling of the economy, down 12 points since February; his disapproval is up 19 points."
More to the point, the people who are flipping are conservative and moderate Democrats, whose support is down 18 percent. Which is probably what emboldened the so-called blue dog Democrats in the House to resist the push to get healthcare done quickly once everyone figured out how much the Obama-backed tri-committee proposal would cost and what it would do to the deficit.
The lower Obama's numbers go the harder its going to be to keep moderate Democrats worried about being re-elected in 2010 on the reservation. And the harder it will be for Obama to remake America.