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Obama Spins His Unpopularity As a Virtue

Barack Obama unveiled his new campaign theme last night: the president is unpopular. More specifically, the president keeps enacting unpopular policies. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s also Mitt Romney’s campaign theme: he, too, wants you to know the president is unpopular.

The audience last night heard this point alluded to throughout—usually euphemistically as a willingness to make tough choices–but Obama himself explicitly brought it up. “If the critics are right that I’ve made all my decisions based on polls, then I must not be very good at reading them,” Obama said near the end of his speech. And he’s right.

Even after the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare’s constitutionality, only 13 percent of the country, according to Gallup, wanted to keep the law in place as-is. (Only 20 percent of Democrats did, so opposition to the bill continues to be bipartisan—though to be fair, 45 percent of Democrats wanted the law to be changed to expand the federal government’s role.)

By now, everyone paying attention is familiar with the Obama administration’s promises on the stimulus bill, and the massive failure of those promises. Polls reflect that as well; heading into the 2010 midterms, 68 percent of Americans said the bill was a waste. As the Hill noted at the time:

The figure suggests that the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s agenda to bolster the economy has fallen flat with voters as elections loom in four weeks. The poll also hints that the White House’s effort to sell the bill to the public has been far from successful.

It’s safe to say that Americans’ impression of Obama’s “agenda to bolster the economy” hasn’t much improved, as last month’s Gallup poll found only 36 percent approve of the president’s handling of the economy.

Of course, the centerpiece of the Obama effort to brand himself as a public opinion-ignoring executive is the auto bailout. It was mentioned all throughout last night’s convention lineup, and was likely what the president was thinking about when he joked about his inability to read polls. But the auto bailout was so unpopular that this is how the New York Times described its improving numbers:

It was, to put it gently, unpopular. In polls at the time, 3 in 4 Americans said Washington should not broaden its effort to help the carmakers, as it ended up doing; nearly 6 in 10 poll respondents opposed the bailouts once they happened; and 54 percent of people said they were “mostly bad for the economy.” Largely negative polls accumulated through 2010 and 2011, too.

But more recent polls seem to show a thaw in public opinion — even if the auto bailout remains relatively unpopular, as far as government initiatives go.

Keep in mind, that was the “good news.” So yes, the president’s policies are unpopular. But why is he reminding the public of that? The plain answer is that he has no other options. There is no getting around the president’s failure on the economy or the unpopularity of his policies. So the only way to spin those numbers is to depict the president as a man who follows his gut instead of the polls.

How to tell the president has nothing to run on? Just read the New York Times’s editorial on Obama’s speech. Its headline? “President Obama’s Second Chance.” The president, so fond of golf, wants a mulligan. And trying to turn his unpopularity into a virtue is his last shot at getting that second chance.



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