Obama X

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 popular. It was sort of true, in that some of his polices were unpopular, but his winning personality and the booming economy more than made up for it. 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. Initially, most white voters respected him as a decent guy. He was not charismatic, but efforts to demonize him never got very far because he was seen as decent and honestly, if not terribly bright. He won two elections largely because the public viewed him as the least bad option. Put another way, his polices were not all that popular and his personality was not ideal, but he was less offensive to middle-class white people than Gore or Kerry.

In contrast, we may actually be seeing an example of a president riding personal popularity in the face of his unpopular polices. There’s little doubt he won in 2008 because of the magic negro stuff. He was the living validation of everything the Baby Boomers 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 voters just wanted to like him.

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, but even they can’t get on-board with a war with Syria.

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, but that may not be clear until the next election.

This piece from the NYTimes lays it out well. Personal validation has a short shelf life in politics. Eventually the practical overtakes it in importance. A big chunk of the Obama coalition is on board solely because it feels good. Of course, blacks support him on racial grounds, but they expect something in return. If loving Obama no longer feels good for liberal whites and blacks feel like they are getting shorted, Obama and the Democrats will have a very bad election in 2014. His personality may not be enough.

Of course, the one thing black politicians have often used when in trouble is the race card. Kurt Schmoke was the first Obama. He was a clean and articulate guy who came out of elite colleges and promised to be a new type of black politician. That is, black on the inside and white liberal on the inside. When that formula stopped working, he started dressing like Nelson Mandela and talking like Malcolm X. Perhaps Obama will find some way to play the race card before the 2014 election. Maybe he’s going to be Obama X.