David Brooks writes in The New York Times
Two of the nation’s smartest analysts have just come out with reports on how the presidential election looks six months out. Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution argues
that at this point President Obama has a modest advantage over Mitt Romney. The pollster Peter D. Hart says that “this election is no better than a 50-50 proposition for the president.”
But when I look at the data, a slightly different question comes to mind: Why is Obama even close? If you look at the fundamentals, the president should be getting crushed right now.
The economic mood of the country is terrible. Roughly 75 percent of Americans believe the economy is still in recession. According to a Quinnipiac survey, only 35 percent of Americans say they are better off than they were four years ago. Barely a third believe the country is heading in the right direction. The economic climate is as bad as or worse than it was in 1968, 1976, 1992 and 2000, years when incumbent parties lost re-election.
Then there is the ideological climate. Obama has governed from the left, but the country, as Galston notes, has shifted to the right. Forty percent of Americans call themselves conservatives, the highest number ever measured.
According to an ABC News/Washington Post survey, only 22 percent of voters believe Obama’s views on the size and role of government are a reason to vote for him. The share of Americans who say the current level of inequality is acceptable has increased by seven percentage points since 1998, to 52 percent. Obama’s main policy initiative, health care reform, remains decidedly unpopular: 39 percent now support it, and 53 percent oppose, according to another ABC News/Washington Post poll.
Finally, Obama has lost support among crucial constituencies. He alienated independents in 2009 and has never won them back. According to a Pew Research Center poll, his support among Catholics has fallen to 42 percent from 49 percent. Even young voters are moving away. And as Galston notes, voter registration among Hispanics has declined by five percentage points, the first significant drop in four decades.
The fundamentals suggest that Obama will go the way of Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy — incumbents who were trounced in hard times. And yet Obama isn’t on the same trajectory as other global leaders, left or right.
This race, like almost all re-election races, is shaping up to be a referendum on the incumbent, not a choice between two visions. Obama’s job approval numbers are driving everything else. Today, 48 percent of Americans approve of his performance. That’s high given the circumstances, and near the 50 percent threshold he will need to win.
How has he stayed so competitive?
First, the Democrats’ demographic advantages are kicking in. The population segments that are solidly Democratic, like single women and the unchurched, are expanding. The segments that are more Republican — two-parent families and observant Catholics — are shrinking.
But most of the cause is personal. There’s an interesting debate over how much personal qualities matter in a presidential election. The evidence this year suggests: a lot. Take one contrast. According to a Fox News poll, only 36 percent of voters believe Obama has a clear plan for fixing the economy. But 48 percent approve of his performance. That means 12 percent of Americans approve of Obama even though they don’t think he has an agenda for moving us forward. In survey after survey, Obama is far more popular than his policies.
The key is his post-boomer leadership style. Critics are always saying that Obama is too cool and detached, arrogant and aloof. But the secret to his popularity through hard times is that he is not melodramatic, sensitive, vulnerable and changeable. Instead, he is self-disciplined, traditional and a bit formal. He is willing, with drones and other mechanisms, to use lethal force.
Normally, presidents look weak during periods of economic stagnation, overwhelmed by events. But Obama has displayed a kind of ESPN masculinity: postfeminist in his values, but also thoroughly traditional in style — hypercompetitive, restrained, not given to self-doubt, rarely self-indulgent. Administrations are undone by scandal and moments when they look pathetic, but this administration, guarded in all things, has rarely had those moments.
In 2008, Obama had that transcendent, messianic tone. This year, he has adopted a Clinton 1996 type of campaign — strong partisan attacks combined with an emphasis on small and medium-sized policies — like the Buffett Rule and student loans — intended to display his common man values. As a result, Obama has come off aggressive, but also, (unlike Romney) classless and in touch with middle-income groups.
I’d say that Obama is a slight underdog this year: the scuffling economy will grind away at voters. But his leadership style is keeping him afloat. He has defined a version of manliness that is postboomer in policy but preboomer in manners and reticence.