Public support for Rousseff had hovered just below 80 percent when she started her term in 2011. The number dipped to a still-strong 57 percent at the start of June. Then came the free fall to a 30 percent approval rating by July.
A Datafolha opinion poll published last week showed a slight rebound. But the government has appeared indecisive while trying to find a formula to ease the discontent ahead of the World Cup soccer championship in several Brazilian cities next summer — venues that many believe will be conducive to more protests.
“I think next year the protests will be more intense,” said João Telésforo, 25, who has been demonstrating in Brasilia against the government. “It will be similar to this year, with as many people in the street, but with much more capacity to influence what happens in this country.”
Lacking the common touch
Rousseff, an economist and energy expert who is uncomfortable wading into crowds, appears hamstrung by the lackluster economy and what even members of her governing coalition say is an inability to set a new political agenda.
“She has a style of doing politics that in some ways is like Angela Merkel — it’s a Germanic manner, and this doesn’t work here,” said Oswaldo Munteal, a historian and expert on Brazil’s transformation to democracy. “I don’t see her with an appetite for governing. I see her as a little sad, somewhat disillusioned. She doesn’t seem to have the heart to rule.”
Rousseff aides describe a president determined not only to govern but also to modernize the government. She has promised broad changes and pledged to funnel more money to schools and hospitals, whose shoddy services have fueled rage.
Her aides have also urged Rousseff to reach out to people in unscripted settings, akin to the low-key meetings she has had with protesters.
“She listens more than she talks,” said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the government. “She is there to take notes.”
In her standard stump speech, Rousseff talks of how natural it is for people to call for “more democracy” in an already vibrant democracy. She also highlights what she calls “extraordinary” accomplishments under the rule of the Workers’ Party, such as popular anti-poverty programs, while asserting that she, too, is supportive of demonstrators’ demands for a better-functioning government.
Her efforts have fallen short with many protesters.
“She truly believes that people who are complaining are complaining on a full belly,” said Gustavo Capela, 27, a lawyer.
Even her allies talk of her failure to connect with ordinary people the way Lula and his immediate predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, could.
“With Lula and Fernando Henrique, there was understanding, and people ceded to them,” said Pedro Simon, a senator from the ruling party’s biggest coalition partner. “But Dilma just doesn’t have what it takes.”
Still, not all the news is grim. Unemployment remains low, and her own commitment to clean government is unquestioned.
The president has also emphasized that she is patiently working to resolve Brazil’s problems, as she pointed out to the newspaper Folha when asked whether she would be out protesting if she were not president.
“I went to a bunch of marches,” she said, recalling her youth. “After that, you see the world in a different way. You know that protests are very important. But each one of us contributes in the best way he or she can.”