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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As his poll numbers fell, Obama responded with his perpetual cool. His appeals to the grass-roots army that he started, through online videos for Organizing for America, took on a formal, emotionless tone. He acted less like an action-oriented President than a Prime Minister overseeing some vast but balky legislative machinery. When challenged about his declining popularity, the President tended to deflect the blame — to the state of the economy, the ferocity of the news cycle and right-wing misinformation campaigns. Aides treated the problem as a communications concern more than a policy matter. They increased his travel schedule to key states and limited his prime-time addresses. They struggled to explain large, unpopular legislative packages to the American people, who opposed the measures despite supporting many of the component parts, like extending health insurance to patients with pre-existing conditions or preventing teacher layoffs. "When you package it all together, it can be too big to succeed as a public-relations matter," says Axelrod.

Instead of shifting course, Obama spoke dismissively about Republican efforts to play "short-term politics." He continued the near weekly visits to new green energy manufacturing plants, repeating promises of an economic rebirth that remains, for many, months or years away. And he missed opportunities to strengthen his connections with his supporters: local political capos complained privately that Obama had a tendency to touch down in their backyards, give a speech and scoot after less than an hour. By the end of the summer, the disconnect had grown so severe that only 1 in 3 Americans in a Pew poll accurately identified him as a Christian, down from 51% in October 2008. At the same time, the base voters Obama had energized so well in '08 went back into hibernation. They were nowhere to be found in the '09 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, tracking instead with pre-Obama historical patterns. While liberals attacked him from the left on cable television, many of his core supporters weren't paying attention. In a rich irony, many of the same groups Obama turned out for the first time in record numbers had suffered the most from the recession and were the most likely to tune politics out. "One of the challenges on the Democratic side is, it's been very hard for [voters] to make connections between what is happening in Washington and what is happening in their lives," says Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster.

Can He Rebalance?
At the White House, advisers take comfort in the fact that at this point in their presidencies, both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton scored slightly lower approval ratings than Obama. And the dominant analogy for the past few months has focused not on 1994, when Clinton lost a Democratic Congress in a huge Republican wave, but on '82, when Reagan lost just 26 seats in the House. Like Obama, Reagan was facing rising discontent at the midterm, driven by huge unemployment numbers that peaked at 10.8% at year's end. But as the economy rebounded, Reagan's governing philosophy, "Stay the course," was vindicated. He won re-election by an enormous margin.

Outside the White House, only a few of the President's Democratic allies take much solace in this history, in part because the current economic slump appears far more lasting than the one Reagan faced. Most experts from both parties say Obama will have to rebalance his politics in 2011 to be re-elected in '12. That's partly because of the growing belief that the Republicans will win the House in November and, if their stars align, have a good shot at taking the Senate as well. Elsewhere, in state houses and in governors' races, Republicans are poised for a broad comeback. Regardless of the exact outcome, it is clear that Obama's brief window of one-party rule has closed. That outcome alone may vindicate Obama's decision to make the massive reforms while he still had the votes. It will never be known for certain just how much a more centrist legislative strategy would have improved the Democrats' midterm outlook.

But two years is the equivalent of multiple lifetimes in politics, and there are signs that Obama is already pivoting away from plans to engineer massive reforms in energy policy, global-warming response and immigration law to less-stirring, more-popular challenges like reducing the deficit and reforming taxation and entitlements. What little margins Obama does have to push major reforms through are sure to shrink away in the coming months. "I think the next couple of years, we've got to focus on debt and deficits," Obama told NBC News after his summer vacation. "We've got to focus on making sure that we make the recovery stronger. And a lot of that is attracting private investment."

Back in Indiana, the evidence of Obama's political failure is particularly glaring. During his early, heady days in office, the President decided to make Elkhart a personal cause. A once thriving manufacturing center of 50,000 on the Michigan-Indiana border, famous for its musical instruments and recreational vehicles, the Elkhart region saw the steepest jump in unemployment of any metropolitan area in the nation during the economic crisis. That helped Obama win Donnelly's district by 9 points, nearly George W. Bush's margin in 2004, and Obama returned to Elkhart just weeks after taking office. "I promised you back then that if elected President, I would do everything I could to help this community recover," he announced. "And that's why I've come back today."

Since then, he has been back twice more, once to speak at Notre Dame and once to herald a new electric-vehicle plant that would be built with federal support. In the southern end of the district, thousands of jobs at parts plants were saved when Obama decided to bail out the auto companies.

Yet all of Obama's personal and financial appeals have been swamped by the depth of the recession and have had little visible effect. Donnelly, who flies home every weekend to work in his district, felt obliged to run against Obama to save his job. And his Republican opponent, Jackie Walorski, says she is often approached by Obama voters who want to vent. "This has burned people," she says. "Their words, not mine: 'Betrayed by the health care vote.' 'What are they thinking when it comes to spending?' 'Broken promises when it comes to jobs.' " At one recent Walorski house party, held at dusk beside a cornfield, two attendees, Matthew and Frances Napieralski, identified themselves as former supporters of the President. "He's not what I voted for," said Matthew, who runs a plastic-injection-molding shop in town. "It's a shame that they led us to believe one thing," said Frances, "and then everything changes."

For now, Obama's aides hope that the controversial reforms in health care and financial rules will produce benefits felt by voters, if not by November 2010, then two years later. That would vindicate the President's vision of government as a solution and not just a problem. Even in Indiana, the disappointment is matched by a real yearning for a leader who can make a difference. "I think he's trying," says Griffin, the laid-off payroll administrator who said she didn't know what Obama had done for her. "Nobody can turn it around overnight."

Correction: The original version of this story referred to a poll that gave Obama voters a choice between tax cuts to reduce the deficit and investments in "research, innovation and new technologies." The actual choice was between those investments and government spending cuts to reduce the deficit.

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