The 'Obama Brand' in Crisis

Guy Benson
Posted: Jun 26, 2014 2:46 PM
The 'Obama Brand' in Crisis

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, many critics warned that his thin resume and striking dearth of executive experience rendered him ill-equipped for the job. Most Americans disagreed, hungrily consuming Obama's diligently-cultivated image and message. The electorate was weary of the Bush administration, worn out from years of war, and reeling from an economic crisis. Obama's inexperience was thus transformed into a feature, and a 'fresh start'-minded public was willing, if not eager, to take a chance on someone new. Beltway mainstays like Hillary Clinton and John McCain didn't stand a chance. A 2006 Washingtonian piece placed a finger on the nature of Obama's intoxicating promise:

Much of Obama’s allure is that he is new and exciting enough to be a sort of blank canvas onto which activists of all kinds can paint their aspirations. Says Chris Lu, his legislative director, “He’s like a Rorschach test—you see in him what you want.”

The Obama brand was exquisitely well-suited for the moment, and it prevailed. During the president's first term, however, many Americans were disabused of the messianic expectations his campaign had actively fomented. Team Obama anticipated this inevitable back-to-earth transition and worked assiduously -- and at times ruthlessly -- to shore up the president's core coalition of support in advance of 2012. The second Obama campaign's primary strategy was to ensure that this victory firewall would hold. In spite of mediocre ratings and the yoke of Obamacare, it did. But eighteen months into an ineffectual and scandal-plagued second term, more Americans than ever before are looking at the Obama 'Rorschach test' and seeing a failed presidency. Worse still for Obama's party, crucial elements of his coalition appear disillusioned and disengaged ahead of the midterm elections. In mid-June NBC's Chuck Todd examined a spate of polling and delivered an unforgiving verdict: “Essentially the public is saying, ‘Your presidency is over,’" he said. This week, a batch of fresh polling reinforces that sentiment. Gallup, NBC/WSJ, NYT/CBS, Fox News and Reuters are all out with national surveys, none of which measure Obama's job approval rating higher than 41 percent. The president's economic marks have been poor for many months, and the new polls continue to reflect the public's dim view. Especially worrying for the White House is the fact that all of these surveys were conducted prior to this week's hideous headlines about the US economy's substantial Q1 contraction. Public opinion on Obama's signature legislative accomplishment, Obamacare, remains underwater and isn't budging. And in several of the new data sets, Americans' assessment of his foreign policy performance plumbs new depths, for fairly obvious reasons. Perhaps most galling to Obama's inner circle is Obama's about-face on the president's handling of Iraq -- one of his bread-and-butter issues, on which he's literally never polled poorly. Change:

The situation on the ground in Iraq is horrific, no doubt, and that's driving the poll crash. But what's telling about this NYT/CBS poll is that Obama's policy posture actually fares rather well on every sub-question about Iraq. An overwhelming majority agrees that the war was a mistake, a slimmer majority backs his decision to withdraw all US troops from the country, and a plurality supports his response to the current crisis. And yet, take another look at the above chart. How does one reconcile Amerians' approval of the administration's specific Iraq policies with their starkly negative overall assessment of Obama himself on the issue? Daniel Drezner cites "the difference between policy outputs and policy outcomes," which is of course a major factor. But Obama's toxic brand is also at play here. Americans have lost confidence in his ability to lead, so they're more likely to reflexively give him a thumbs-down on matters of import. Combine his severely wounded political standing with the catastrophic reality in Iraq, and the result is a (-15) approval rating on the Iraq war for our famously (and popularly) anti-Iraq war president. I'll leave you with this graphic illustrating Democrats' very real 2014 enthusiasm problem, which we've been covering for months: