Alternative Theories on Obama's Poll Decline

By Matthew Cooper

The Washington elites are abuzz over Obama's poll decline. Of course, polls are mercurial, everchanging and go up and down. Nevertheless they do reflect a reality of public perception at a particular moment and they create their own dynamic. New research from the folks at Pew suggests that the economy, health care and Obama's comments on the Henry Louis Gates arrest have helped push his numbers down.  All those things certainly make sense. While everybody wants health care reform in the abstract, people are bound to be disappointed when it comes to specifics. And the economy continues to suffer despite an uptick in the financial markets. The Gates episode seems to have hurt Obama most with non-Hispanic whites who may more naturally side with the police that Obama claims acted "stupidly" before walking his comments back. 

I suspect some other dynamics are at work, too. Among them:

Washington's stuck. Whenever Washington seems to be fighting and legislation is stalled from partisan gridlock you're going to see numbers go down. Right now the health care process is actually moving along pretty briskly, but if you were just watching it casually you would think that the Beltway had descended into the same old stalemate.

It's not that he sided with Gates, it's that he got involved at all. Obama's comments on the Gates episode seem to have hurt him but I think it's less because he sided with Gates and more because he got involved at all, seeming to focus less on the economy and more on a local story, albeit one that's caught national interest. Obama wouldn't be better off if he'd sided with the cops. But if he'd said that he was going to let the parties work out the matter while he focused on the economy, that would have been the best answer at all.

Foreign travel.  Obama's recent spate of foreign travel has probably hurt him. It's not that Americans don't want their president to travel abroad and Obama's performances overseas, especially his tough-love talk in Ghana, won priase from the likes of Newt Gingrich. But when a president is overseas during a time of domestic crisis, he doesn't convey the same sense of urgency.

Too Much J. Crew, Not Enough Eleanor.  The Obamas have had plenty of meetings with those who are down on their luck. But the overall impression that Americans may be getting of the Obamas is of people out of touch with the plight of Americans. This is probably owing more to the celebrity media culture than anything the Obamas have done. But in a neo Depression, is all the coverage of Michelle's hair, the kids at Sidwell, the upcoming Martha's Vineyard vacation really helping the president.

There's no easy way to parse out what causes polls to rise and fall and it's not clear that it matters that much either. But it's worth thinking about some of these ancillary factors, too. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/07/alternative-theories-on-obamas-poll-decline/22467/