Obama Can’t Tap Voter Anger Because It's Directed at Him

The struggling liberal president is fighting for the center’s support.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Now that the voters in Massachusetts have put him on the ropes, President Barack Obama is spoiling for a fight. Speaking last week in Elyria, Ohio, the president, the New York Times reported, used some version of the word "fight" more than 20 times as he railed against the big banks, Wall Street, joblessness, and the economic downturn that has hit the nation hard.

As a newly-minted populist, Obama is hoping to win back the support of the independents and the "Reagan Democrats" who, over his first year in the White House, have become steadily less enthusiastic about his performance in office. The president, as the numbers reflect, has been losing the support of the center. On Monday, the Gallup organization released a new survey that shows the nation's first postpartisan president is an extremely polarizing figure despite an average job approval rating of 57 percent for his first year in office. Underneath that, however, is a lot of bad news.

He came into office seeking to unite the country, and his initial approval ratings ranked among the best for post-World War II presidents, including an average of 41 percent approval from Republicans in his first week in office. But he quickly lost most of his Republican support, with his approval rating among Republicans dropping below 30 percent in mid-February and below 20 percent in August. Throughout the year, his approval rating among Democrats exceeded 80 percent, and it showed little decline even as his overall approval rating fell from the mid-60s to roughly 50 percent.

The fact that the president continues to run strong among Democrats, which the White House political operation must certainly regard as good news, is tempered by his poor showing among the overall electorate. The latest Gallup presidential job approval numbers have the streams about to cross, with 48 percent of those surveyed approving of his performance and 47 percent disapproving.

Taking these two sets of data together, the high marks he gets from better than three quarters of Democrats means that, while retaining the support of the left, he is losing the right and, more importantly, the center.

The new populism unveiled in Ohio--which will almost certainly be a key refrain in Wednesday's State of the Union address--is an effort to win back the allegiance of those voters who have been deserting the president in droves. By positioning himself as someone who "fights" and will keep fighting for the little guy, Obama is attempting to tap into the anger among the electorate that helped propel Scott Brown into the Senate. The problem for Obama is that he fails to understand that much of that anger is directed directly at him.

It is now generally agreed that, as a candidate for president, Obama failed to define himself as a liberal--but it is as a liberal he has attempted to govern. He has attempted to tax, he has spent, and he has regulated in ways that threaten livelihoods and which run counter to Main Street common sense. The sense of alienation that produces among voters is not transient; it endures and it is costly.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to govern the country from either the left or the right alone. The center, as political consultant Dick Morris has written, is the "vital" part of the electorate. By losing it, Bush drove the Republicans into minority status. Without the center it is highly unlikely Obama can do much better.