Gallup reports: “Obama’s approval rating is below 50 percent, Americans’ satisfaction with the direction of the country is barely above 20 percent, and the economy remains a dominant concern.” Moreover:
Comparing today’s economic and political ratings with those from previous years when presidents sought reelection reveals that today’s climate is more similar to years when incumbents lost than when they won.
Perhaps the broadest indicator of the public’s mood comes from Gallup’s satisfaction measure, which asks Americans if they are satisfied or dissatisfied with “the way things are going in the United States at this time.” The 24 percent of Americans currently satisfied is most similar to the 20 percent recorded in May 1992 during George H.W. Bush’s first and only term. Bush was also the only sitting president of the last four to lose his reelection bid.
In short, so long as the economy is the source of great dissatisfaction, President Obama remains at risk. Or to put it differently, despite the Obama campaign's best efforts, the voters are assessing him based on the economy’s performance. It is, in short, a referendum election.
It was therefore surprising to read my colleague Greg Sargent’s report that the Obama team is using a “risk theme.” In particular, Greg observes part and parcel of that is the argument that “changing leadership right now is too risky a gamble with the recovery, which is underway but remains fragile — an argument you’ll be hearing more of soon enough.”
Wow. Really? Voters overwhelmingly are displeased with the economy, so is a change of presidents and policies a “threat” to voters’ economic security or a promise of better times? A GOP operative close to the Mitt Romney camp who declined to comment on the record had this response via e-mail: “OMG.” In other words, puleez, puleez make that argument to the voters.
It is ironic that the candidate for “hope and change” is now the candidate about maintaining the status quo and fearing change. Sean Spicer, communications director of the RNC, seemed pleasantly surprised to hear the election phrased in these terms. He told me, “With almost everything on the rise from energy costs to college tuition, groceries and health care, more than anything a majority of Americans are ready for a president whose number one priority is turning this economy around .” Translation: Ok, we’ll be the change party!
Greg wisely saw this coming, and warned. “The basic problem for Obama is that while economic confidence is rising, Americans remain unhappy with his stewardship of the economy, and appear open to Romney’s argument that his success in turning around troubled companies equips him to turn around an entire country faster than Obama has.”
But the Obama camp seems nevertheless enamored with this approach. Recall that David Axelrod not too long ago said in a Fox News Sunday interview that the election was about a choice “between economy that produces a growing middle class and gives people a chance to get ahead and their kids a chance to get ahead and an economy that continues down the road we are on, and everybody else is running faster and faster just to keep pace.” Ummm . . . that’s right!
It is times like this that you have to wonder if there are any non- “yes” men or women around the president, anyone to shake them from their fantasy that they’ve got this economy well in hand and voters will reward them for it. But perhaps this is just further evidence that Obama is having difficulty articulating a message that allows him to evade culpability for the poor economy. It is hard when an incumbent can’t run on his record.