In the Reagan years, liberals had a standard response to the fact Reagan was wildly popular. They said he was personally popular, but his policies were not that popular. It was nonsense, but they had nothing else. They were not going to admit defeat and give up their life long religion. Similarly, conservatives argued that the Clinton polices were not popular, but the affable Clinton was well liked. They had some evidence, but the Clinton polices were not all that different from the Bush polices. The argument really fell apart in the Bush years. A majority certainly respected Bush, but he was not a charismatic guy. In fact, he was rather dull and his political maneuvering was often clumsy. He won two elections largely because the public viewed him as the least bad option.
We may be seeing a perfect example of personal popularity trumping policy with Obama. There’s little doubt he won in 2008 because of the magic negro stuff. He was the living validation of everything the Left believed about race and culture. Huge increases in the vote from black women, liberal whites and upper-middle class whites carried him to victory, even though his platform was ill-defined and not particularly interesting. The 2010 election and the continuing hatred of his signature achievement underscores this fact. The phenomenon is in full bloom with Syria. Obama is in the mid-to-low-40’s according to Gallup, yet his Syria policy has 27% support. Part of it can be attributed to the poor handling of the issue. That said, no amount of salesmanship is going to make another war popular. The best he could have done is match his own approval rate by rallying his party.
At the end of the Bush years, we saw what happened when the majority party used up all of its good will with the public. The 2006 election wiped out the GOP. We saw what happened when the president used up all of his good will. Bush fell into the low-30’s at one point. Obama is at 42% right now and this fiasco is not helping him. It will be interesting to see if his coalition starts to unwind as we saw with Bush. The Obama coalition may very well be more fragile, even temporary. This piece from the NYTimes lays it out well. Personal validation has a short shelf life. Eventually the practical overtakes it in importance. A big chunk of the Obama coalition is on board solely because it feels good. If it suddenly feels good to embrace their inner libertarian, he and the Democrats will have a very bad election in 2014.