The Fix: Are liberals falling out of love with Obama?

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010; 4:04 PM

In the wake of President Barack Obama's Oval Office address to the country last Tuesday, a narrative has been on the march: liberals, the people who served as the electoral backbone for his candidacy in 2008, have fallen out of love with the chief executive.

Jon Stewart took on the topic on his "Daily Show" -- detailing a series of campaign commitments from Obama on topics ranging from the closure of Guantanamo Bay to his attitude toward executive power and the comparing the actual policies' similarities to those policies put in place by former President George W. Bush. "What happened to Barry from the block," asked Stewart.

Two of MSNBC's primetime hosts -- Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow -- also expressed displeasure with the address, an unhappiness captured by Maddow's long sigh when asked to assess the speech.

And, even prior to Obama's speech last week, organized labor had tried to send a message to the Administration about the lack of movement for a progressive agenda by spending $10 million on an ultimately unsuccessful primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas.

The bickering over the Arkansas race -- a White House aide said labor had flushed $10 million down the toilet -- led AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka to pronounce himself "very disappointed" with the back and forth.

Ross Douthat, in a column that ran this morning in the New York Times, summed up the liberal agita thusly:

"Many liberals look at this White House and see a presidency adrift -- unable to respond effectively to the crisis in the gulf, incapable of rallying the country to great tasks like the quest for clean energy, and unwilling to do what it takes to jump-start the economy."

Open and shut case, right? Not so fast.

A look at Obama's standing among both liberals and liberal Democrats in a series of national polls conducted by the Washington Post and ABC since the start of Obama's presidency shows little significant erosion in his numbers.

In the most recent Post/ABC survey, which was conducted earlier this month, 74 percent of self-identified liberals approved of the job Obama was doing as compared with 24 percent who disapproved. Those numbers were even stronger among liberal Democrats -- 85 percent of whom expressed approval for how Obama was handling the presidency.

Those numbers -- among liberals and liberal Democrats -- have fallen from Obama's high water mark around his 100th day in office but are remarkably consistent with his overall approval ratings for the entirety of 2010. (In 2009, Obama's approval among liberals averaged 86 percent while so far in 2010 in stands at 77 percent.)

The Post/ABC data isn't unique in showing a steady but very slight erosion for Obama among self-identified liberals over the past 18 months and little evidence of an increased level of disapproval of late.

In Gallup data, Obama's highest job approval score (92 percent) among liberals came in early May 2009. But, his current standing (77 percent) is at or above the average Gallup number over the past few months -- including a low of 73 percent in March 2010.

There are three reasons to suspect that these numbers may not tell the whole story, however:

1. If there is genuine discontent with Obama rising from the liberal grassroots on up, it will likely take a bit of time to be reflected in polling. Most news organizations will poll again in early July and, if there is a genuine erosion in Obama's numbers among liberals, it's likely to come to the surface in those numbers.

2. On hot-button issues Obama is deeply invested in -- the economy, the war in Afghanistan -- there is already evidence of considerable unrest among his liberal base. On Afghanistan, nearly seven in ten (68 percent) of liberals say the war is not worth fighting with a whopping 58 percent saying they feel that way strongly. Obama's numbers on his Administration's approach to the economy and the oil spill are significantly stronger but in each case there is roughly one in three liberals who disapprove of how he is handling the matter. Given that Obama isn't likely to back away from his positioning on any of those issues, it could be recipe for growing discontent with his presidency among liberals.

3. Voicing broad support for Obama's agenda is one thing, feeling energized enough about that agenda to turn out in the November midterm election is something entirely different. The enthusiasm gap made plain by Gallup this morning -- 35 percent of self-identified Democrats said they were more enthusiastic about this midterm election than previous ones while 56 percent said they were less enthusiastic -- could well be one leading indicator of how Obama's base is simply not as fired up and ready to go as it once was. Of course, that same enthusiasm gap could be attributed to the age-old trend that the minority party always feels more enthusiastic about turning out in a midterm election in hopes of sending a message to the party in power.

What does all of this mean for November -- not to mention 2012?

History suggests that in the immediate run-up to a presidential election, wayward base voters tend to come home as the race is framed as a choice between someone they largely agree with and someone they don't.

While Obama must stay aware of the unrest -- to the extent it exists -- on his left flank, it's not likely to be a major problem in 2012. (Remember how former Sen. Bill Bradley was going to exploit liberal discontent with then Vice President Al Gore 's incremental approach to issues in the 2000 Democratic presidential primaries? Didn't happen.)

If there is further evidence of unhappiness among liberals -- and, to be clear, there isn't much in the data just yet -- it could have some influence on this fall as midterm elections tend to be battles between the two party bases and even the slightest downturn in enthusiasm among liberals could lead to major seat gains for Republicans.

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