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The Most Important Political Development of 2011

As we move toward the end of the year, it’s worth putting the state of politics in America today in perspective, starting with this observation: Barack Obama is, right now, in a perilous situation, quite apart from what the GOP field does and does not do to one another. That is, I think, the most important political development of 2011.

There are several year-end polls that illustrate Obama’s problems. One of them comes to us courtesy of the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll. Having sliced and diced the data, the analysis of one of America’s best political reporters, Ron Brownstein of National Journal, is thus: On the nation’s immediate circumstances, “the verdict in the survey remains overwhelmingly negative.”

Fully 70 percent of those polled say the United States is on the wrong track, while only 20 percent say it is moving in the right direction. That ties the Heartland Monitor survey last October for the most pessimistic finding on that reading in any of the polls dating back to April 2009.

In the new survey, only 44 percent of those polled say they approve of Obama’s performance while 49 percent disapprove. (In eight Heartland Monitor surveys
since January 2010, Obama’s approval rating has exceeded 50 percent only last May, when it reached 51 percent).

In the new poll, just 35 percent of whites say they approve of Obama’s performance. Among whites without a college education, less than one-third of them approve of his performance. And among college-educated white voters, who have generally been favorably disposed to Obama, just 39 percent of them say they approve. Even among college-educated white women, who gave Obama 52 percent of their votes in 2008, his approval rating has dropped to 42 percent.

The most recent two surveys also place Obama near a low point with independents: 38 percent of them in the new poll approve of his performance; each of those mark the first time in the Heartland Monitor polling that fewer than 40 percent of independents have approved.

Only 28 percent said they expect his policies to increase opportunity for them to get ahead; 37 percent say his agenda will diminish their opportunities. “That’s the biggest tilt toward the negative that the poll has ever recorded on this question,” according to Brownstein. He adds that an incumbent’s approval rating historically has been the most revealing gauge of his reelection prospects – and “the numbers are even gloomier for Obama on a reelection question.”

When asked if they intend to vote for Obama, 39 percent said they were now inclined to, while 54 percent said they will definitely or probably back someone else.

Brownstein also provides this useful comparison. Compared to his 2008 total

  • Obama’s approval rating has dropped 14 percentage points among independents;
  • 12 percentage points lower among young adults (aged 18-29);
  • 11 points lower among African-Americans;
  • 10 points lower among college-educated white women; and
  • 7 points among upper middle-income families earning between $75,000 and $100,000 annually (Obama has dropped from 51 percent of the vote with them to 44 percent approval).

Remember: Each of those groups provided him a majority of their votes last time; among none of them does he command anything like majority support right now. And while Brownstein notes that there is evidence of some increasing optimism among the public, it’s “hardly the stuff of clouds parting.”

If Barack Obama is going to be re-elected, he will have to climb a steep political mountain. He could do it, of course. But he ends this year even more  vulnerable than he began it. By any reasonable measure, President Obama is now the underdog. The presidential race is the GOP’s to lose.



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