His supporters are genuinely puzzled at President Obama's slip in popularity. They're racking their brains to explain how a man who swept into the Oval Office on a tide of good will could have fallen so low. According to recent polls, most Americans now disapprove of the job Obama is doing. That's a dramatic change from his early months in office, when the president held a 2-to-1 advantage in his approval ratings.
Former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta suggests the president has been acting more like a prime minister and less like a president, relying on legislative accomplishments to define his presidency. Others, like former President Jimmy Carter, have even blamed racism for the president's unpopularity. But the explanation for the president's disapproval is pretty simple. He seems to have no clue what to do about the economy -- and everything he's done so far has either failed or made matters worse.
Unemployment is stuck at 9.5 percent -- and that number only reflects the percentage of people who have looked for work in the previous four weeks. If you included among the unemployed those who've become so discouraged they've stopped searching for jobs, it would add several million more people to the ranks and raise the rate by several points. And if you count the number of people who have accepted part-time work because there were no full-time jobs available, the rate of unemployed and underemployed would be close to double the official unemployment rate.
To date, Obama's only response to unemployment has been to increase government spending. In doing so, he's padded government payrolls and extended unemployment benefits -- which can actually encourage people to stay on the unemployment rolls instead of taking jobs that might be less than desirable. But government spending doesn't create jobs in the private sector. Private-sector employers are worried enough about the anemic growth in the economy, looming deficits, and tax increases that they just aren't hiring.
But it isn't just the president's policies that are problematic. He may be the most out-of-touch occupant of the White House in my lifetime. Witness his reaction to the controversy on the building of a mosque and community center near the site of the 9/11 attack in lower Manhattan.
First, he condescendingly lectured Americans about the First Amendment and the right of Muslims "to practice their religion" -- as if anyone was suggesting otherwise. Then he snapped at a reporter who asked about the remarks the following day, "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put the mosque there."
Two years ago, candidate Obama was able to fill stadiums with adoring crowds everywhere he went. Americans were drawn to his message of hope and change -- enough so that they overlooked his inexperience when they went to the polls. He was a tabula rasa on whom many Americans projected leadership qualities they wanted to see.
But the real man hasn't so much led America as he has stood aloof. Even his signature accomplishment -- health care reform -- was more the handiwork of congressional Democrats than it was a product of his making. He seems eerily disconnected even when he gets what he wants.
With the mid-term elections just around the corner, Obama will soon be back in full campaign mode. But no one seems to believe he can work his old magic -- not even the Democrat candidates who'd normally jump at the chance to have a sitting president campaign for them.
If the Republicans take over the House -- and win enough Senate seats to ensure their ability to block legislation -- the president will find it difficult to continue his spending spree. If Republicans can block tax increases, too, the economy might actually begin to take off.
When that happens, the president's popularity will likely improve as well, as it did for Bill Clinton after the 1994 Republican congressional sweep. But the irony will be that a Republican victory may be the president's only chance to improve his falling approval ratings.