How Barack Obama Became Mr. Unpopular

Nine weeks before the midterm elections, Barack Obama finds himself on the wrong side of the polls. Where did all that adoration go — and is a Republican sweep next?

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

President Obama, during a town-hall meeting with young African leaders in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 3, 2010

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The Overreach
Rather than address these concerns as the economic crisis grew, Obama made a conscious choice to go big with government reforms of health care and energy. The bailouts of the auto companies, the rescue of Wall Street and the new regulation of banks and the financial industry only deepened the public's skepticism, especially among independent voters. Rather than dwell on the political problems, the President pushed his team forward, believing, in the words of top adviser David Axelrod, that "ultimately the best politics was to do that which he thought was right."

It wasn't long before deep cracks in Obama's coalition began to appear. This past June, Peter Brodnitz of the Benenson Strategy Group, a firm that also polls for the White House, asked voters which they preferred: "new government investments" or "cutting taxes for business" as the better approach to jump-start job creation. Even among those who voted for Obama, nearly 38% preferred tax cuts. When Brodnitz offered a choice between government spending cuts to reduce the deficit and investments in "research, innovation and new technologies," one-third of Obama voters chose the cuts. The evidence throughout the poll, commissioned by the think tank Third Way, was unmistakable: roughly 1 in 3 of the President's 2008 supporters had serious questions about government spending solutions for the economy. In Nevada, a state Obama won with 55% of the vote, only 29% of likely voters this year think the President's actions have helped the economy, according to a recent poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. "A lot of this was really inevitable, or at least pretty predictable," says Indiana Senator and former governor Evan Bayh, a Democratic expert at getting elected in the Rust Belt. "We have a lot of government activism at a time when skepticism of government efficiency is at an all-time high."

It's not as if the White House didn't see this coming. After a meeting in December 2008 about the severity of the economic crisis, Axelrod pulled Obama aside. He recalls saying, "Enjoy these great poll numbers you have, because two years from now, they are not going to look anything like this." But even as Obama aides were aware of a growing disconnect, it didn't seem to worry their boss. Instead, the ambitious legislative goals usually trumped other priorities. Both in the original stimulus package and then in the health care and energy measures, the White House ceded most of its clout to the liberal lions who controlled the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. That maneuver helped assure passage of reforms, but it also confirmed some of the worst fears about how Washington works. "I'd rather be a one-term President and do big things than a two-term President and just do small things," he told his team after Republican Scott Brown was elected Senator in liberal Massachusetts and some in the Administration suggested pulling back on health reform.

For Democrats in conservative districts, like Representative Jason Altmire in western Pennsylvania, the President's approach always spelled trouble. "Even though the leaders in Congress understood that a lot of these things are not going to be popular, they were at a point in their careers where they realized that this is what they have been waiting for," says Altmire, who is favored to win this year, in part because he voted against most of the President's agenda, including health reform. "It was true overreach."

For someone who so carefully read the political mood as a candidate, Obama has been unexpectedly passive at moments as President. Whereas other Democrats had hoped to spend the late summer talking about two things — jobs and the unpopularity of many Republican policies — the White House has been distracted by a string of unrelated issues, from immigration reform to a mishandled dismissal of a longtime USDA official to the furor over the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero. On Aug. 31, Obama gave a prime-time speech about the partial troop pullout from Iraq, touching on jobs only tangentially, before spending the following day in an intensive effort to restart the Middle East peace process. "It is inconceivable that a team so disciplined during the presidential campaign can't carry a message with the bully pulpit of the White House," says one Democratic strategist working on the midterm elections. "It's politically irresponsible, and Americans have little patience for it."

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