Editors' note: this piece is co-authored by Adam Schaeffer.
In recent weeks we’ve seen a substantial shift in the way the nation’s elite speaks about the Obama administration. An administration once hailed for the most competent and seamless transition in presidential history now suffers from widespread charges of incompetence and lack of focus -- even from ardent supporters.
The flow of elite communication has started to shift against President Obama, and soon we can expect to see a significant erosion of support among the public – a shift on which Republicans and conservatives ought to capitalize.
Longtime deep-pocketed Democratic donor and MSNBC investment advisor Jim Cramer kicked off the trend by denouncing President Obama’s handling of the economy, calling it a “radical agenda” and the “greatest wealth destruction I've seen by a president.” On a separate occasion, Cramer requested a refund on the many large donations he made to Obama and the Democrats.
Earlier this week Warren Buffet criticized the administration’s handling of the economy and its lack of focus in favor of partisan political projects. We should be waging war on the economic meltdown, Buffett insisted, and Obama needs to keep his eye on that alone right now.
“If on December 8th when -- maybe it's December 7th, when Roosevelt convened Congress to have a vote on the war,” explained Buffett, “he didn't say, `I'm throwing in about 10 of my pet projects,’ and you didn't have Congresspeople putting on 8,000 earmarks onto the declaration of war in 1941 .”
Similarly, in a Washington Post oped, Intel microchip innovator and Obama supporter Andrew S. Grove confesses to “growing worry and frustration” and concern “over the ineffectual ways the administration has pursued [solutions to the economic crisis].”
Thomas Friedman, the quintessential hopeful moderate, writes that “it feels as if [President Obama] is deliberately keeping his distance from the banking crisis, while pressing ahead on other popular initiatives” and urges him to focus on the economic crisis.
At the liberal The New Republic, William Galston concludes about the Obama administration, “Their failure thus far to restore financial confidence raises two equally depressing possibilities: Either they do not know what to do, or they do not believe they can muster the political support to do what they know needs to be done."
Stuart Taylor writes in the center-left National Journal that, “having praised President Obama's job performance in two recent columns, it is with regret that I now worry that he may be deepening what looks more and more like a depression and may engineer so much spending, debt, and government control of the economy as to leave most Americans permanently less prosperous and less free.”
And this trend among the chattering classes has not gone unnoticed. The Politico reports that even many Democratic politicians are getting nervous, starting “to worry that voters don’t and won’t understand the link between economic revival and Obama’s huge agenda.”
More than a few of the broad center-left are jumping ship. It’s almost as if they’ve been given talking points since they echo all the same complaints: the Obama administration is unfocused, prone to missteps, and is more interested in pushing an aggressive liberal social agenda than it is in stabilizing our economy.
That’s a deadly narrative for the President. And Republicans would do well to focus on amplifying these center-left critics and criticisms at every turn, increasing the clarity, breadth, and intensity of the narrative.
Elite opinion matters; it is the lifeblood of mass public opinion. And it is of particular importance when the composition of elite communication begins to change directions.
Public opinion moves in response to the relative intensity and consistency of messages flowing from elite sources. When elites are polarized – generally along a liberal-conservative axis – the public divides according to political awareness and values. But when elites unite on mainstream issues – such as they are currently beginning to do in denouncing President Obama’s handling of the economy – the public’s response becomes relatively non-ideological and cohesive.
It’s a simple matter, really. Polls are a lagging indicator of political success or failure. And as Howard Fineman of Newsweek notes, “in ways both large and small, what's left of the American establishment is taking his [Obama’s] measure and, with surprising swiftness, they are finding him lacking.”
President Obama for the moment enjoys high approval ratings hovering just above 60 percent. But reading the reports on elite communications, it looks like Obama is in for a serious Bear market in the polls.
Obama can stop the inevitable now only by a true turnaround in performance, not another speech or assertion that they will soon have a plan to revive the economy, or rein in spending eventually, or turn to fiscal responsibility. It’s too late for words to sooth the markets and our economy. And it seems unlikely that this administration will quickly and substantively change its approach to governance.
The market has suffered a 15 percent decline since Obama took office. His approval numbers will likely soon do the same.
Adam Schaeffer, Ph.D., is an advising partner of Evolving Strategies.