The fallout from two major polls yesterday—Washington Post/ABC and New York Times/CBS—finding measurable and significant drops in support for Barack Obama nationwide during the past month has instantly changed the national conversation. Obama is in trouble, and there’s no pretending he isn’t. One poll might have been viewed as an outlier, but two polls taken around the same time with the same sample size of American adults can’t be dismissed as statistical noise. In the New York Post today, in a column written before the release of the NYT/CBS survey, I suggest the media focus on macroeconomic good news is blinding commentators (many of whom wish to be blinded) to facts of American life that can’t be so easily measured. People will not be convinced that they should feel better than they do about their current financial condition and the prospects for the future by assurances about a positive change in the unemployment rate that says nothing about what’s going on with the value of their house and the cost of oil at the pump.
But I want to propose another possibility for Obama’s troubles: His political and tactical strategy for 2012 may be backfiring on him. He has decided, for obvious reasons, to do what he can to highlight the differences between him and the Republicans at every turn, most notably in the recent “contraceptive health” debate. He’s trying to polarize the debate (while making it seem the GOP is doing it), to draw sharp lines of distinction between him and the Republicans; it’s a classic strategy when you can’t run a good-news campaign. And yet this may be the worst possible time for such an effort. Time and again during the past year, Obama has decided to go to the American people with this story to tell: I can’t work with these lunatics. And every time he does—during and after the debt-ceiling debacle in particular—he and his supporters are surprised to find the public assigns him a considerable portion of the blame for the inability to strike deals and move forward.
The president knows the public loathes Washington, and so he has decided to run against Washington. This is usually a Republican strategy and for a good reason—Republican politicians do generally hew to the belief that the federal government is too big and too intrusive and needs to be checked. Barack Obama has presided over the most rapid growth in the size and power of the federal government since the Second World War. He has empowered Washington, and everyone knows it.
He can’t get away with blaming Washington’s ineffectuality and division on the other guys because he is the candidate of Washington. If you want more government—more safety net, more redistribution, more restrictions on the rights of mediating institutions like religious-run charities and hospitals for the purpose of expanding your definition of freedom—Barack Obama is your man. For him to turn around and effectively tell the electorate, “I hate this town like you do, so reelect me because I share your values,” is, to put it mildly, not credible. And there’s this as well: If we’ve spent weeks talking about contraception, which seems to driving everyone bonkers, who’s responsible for that?