The political world certainly looks different as we move into the Fall. Suddenly, President Obama’s approval ratings are down across the board. Democrats are struggling, falling behind in the two big races this year, the Governors races in Virginia and New Jersey.
What happened? A look at recent Washington State polling data suggests that by opening a fundamental debate on the role of government, Obama is rebuilding the Republican base by alienating conservatives, rural voters, and especially men.
Let’s start with the data. SurveyUSA regularly tracks the job approval ratings for the President, governors, and U.S. Senators. Their June poll showed Democrats continuing to do well in Washington state. President Obama’s approval rating stood at 63 percent, with 33 percent saying they disapproved. By the end of August those numbers had changed dramatically, to 51-46.
Senator Patty Murray’s numbers dropped right along with the President’s, confirming that this shift is affecting all Democrats. (What has Patty Murray done in the past three months to affect the public’s perception of her?) The same two polls found her ratings dropping from 56 percent approve, 35 percent disapprove in June, to 47-43 in August.
A look inside the data shows there has been little movement among partisan Republicans and Democrats, but a massive shift among independents. Among self-identified independents the President’s approval rating has plunged from 53-43 on the approve/disapprove scale in June, to 29-70 in August. Murray’s numbers are similarly dramatic, going from 48-46 down to 27-64.
Other interesting cross tab numbers stick out. The President’s approval numbers among conservatives and voters in Eastern Washington have dropped dramatically. And among voters in metropolitan Seattle, Obama has gone from 68-26 to 54% approve, 44% disapprove. SurveyUSA doesn’t break out the results this way, but I strongly suspect the majority of this drop came among suburban, rather than Seattle voters.
One subgroup accounts for the vast majority of this drop: men. Among women, support for Obama and Murray has slipped slightly, but among men it has fallen off a cliff. In June, 65 percent of men approved of the job Obama was doing, while only 34 percent disapproved. In August the numbers were 43-55. Among men in Washington state, the President’s approval rating has gone from a plus 31 percent, to a negative 12. During the same period, Senator Murray’s approval rating among men has gone from a plus 13 to a negative 10.
Sometimes polls are hard to read, and sometimes they are not. Clearly, something has caused independent men, for the time being, to turn dramatically away from the Obama agenda. So what’s going on?
For the past ten years the leading dynamic in Washington state politics has been the unpopularity of George W. Bush. President Bush defined the Republican Party, and independents, including men, turned away from the GOP, costing Republicans elections, especially in the suburbs.
Barack Obama rode this anti-Bush, anti-Republican tide into the White House by winning among groups that had supported Republicans in the past, including suburban independents. Obama was intelligent, articulate, competent, and most importantly, he seemed like a moderate pragmatist. Independents, fed up with the perceived incompetence of the Bush administration, abandoned the GOP in droves.
Independent men, at least, seem to be experiencing buyer’s remorse. Traditionally, men are more conservative and more Republican than women. The gender gap was always real, and it appears the Obama agenda is reopening it. Obviously the war over health care is having a major impact, but the health-care debate is just part of the bigger fight Obama has revived: What is the proper role of government?
Obama campaigned as a moderate who would unite us. He is governing as a divisive, liberal change agent. Those who listened closely and examined his record aren’t surprised, but independent, conservative men are just catching on. The real debate isn’t over health care; it is over how big and powerful the federal government should be — the oldest debate in American politics.
Writing for Real Clear Politics, David Paul Kuhn argues that the real meaning of the Obama presidency is becoming clear and that in his recent health-care speech the President finally acknowledged and embraced that reality: "Not until Wednesday night did Obama explicitly take up the deeper fight that inevitably would be his. From the stimulus package to health care reform, the debates of Obama’s presidency all reached back to the enduring American argument —the role of government."
Barack Obama wants government to do more and spend more. We can argue about the details, including who is going to pay for all the new spending, but that fact is now undeniable. Cap and trade, the health-care public option, and billions and billions of dollars of new spending have defined Obama as a liberal, which is costing him and the party he leads the support of relatively conservative men.
None of this signals the end of the Obama presidency. It does mean the honeymoon is over, and the 49-49 nation is back. It also means Republicans are back in the game, nationally, and here at home. With good candidates, in 2010 Republicans can gain back Congressional and legislative suburban seats lost during the Bush years. The 2012 election will be all about the economy. If we have recovered, the Democrats will have a powerful message. Independents look at results, not rhetoric.
In a broader sense the debate Obama has opened is good for our democracy. As a former lawmaker who conducted dozens of sleepy town hall meetings in my career, I loved seeing thousands of passionate citizens show up this Summer to debate the role of government. The Obama myth was always too good to be true. When it comes to the proper size and role of government, Americans have never agreed. So let’s debate it again. As Kuhn notes, this division is old as America itself: “Government's place in citizen’s lives once divided men like Jefferson and Hamilton. It will divide us as well.”
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