Is President Obama Above Water, and If So, Why?

This morning David Gelernter wrote a thought-provoking post titled, “What Keeps This Failed President Above Water?” How can a president with a record as terrible as Barack Obama’s be running essentially even in the polls? I have some thoughts on that question from a perspective that is slightly different from Gelernter’s.

First of all, it is questionable whether Obama is, in reality, above water. He can’t get his approval rating out of the 40s, nor can he get a majority in any head-to-head poll with Mitt Romney, even among registered voters or “adults.” For a sitting president more than three months out from the election, that is a poor performance. The voters’ disgruntlement with Obama shows up in poll after poll. At the moment, Romney leads Obama 46-43 in the Rasmussen Survey. Today a new Gallup/USA Today poll got a lot of attention:

Despite concerted Democratic attacks on his business record, Republican challenger Mitt Romney scores a significant advantage over President Obama when it comes to managing the economy, reducing the federal budget deficit and creating jobs, a national USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds.

By more than 2-1, 63%-29%, those surveyed say Romney’s background in business, including his tenure at the private equity firm Bain Capital, would cause him to make good decisions, not bad ones, in dealing with the nation’s economic problems over the next four years.

USA Today is quick to note that Obama does well in some measures unrelated to the economy:

To be sure, Obama retains significant advantages of his own. By 2-1, he’s rated as more likable than Romney.

Yeah, right. A couple of things are going on there. A great many Americans have only the vaguest impression of Romney and have no idea whether he is likable or not. And saying that Obama is “likable” is a good thing to tell a pollster after you have expressed the opinion that he doesn’t know jack about the economy. “He’s a nice guy, but…”

My guess is that the conventional wisdom will prove correct. Undecided voters will break against Obama in the campaign’s late days, and Romney will win fairly handily. That is, the electoral map will look more like 2004 than 2000.

All of that said, it is remarkable that 40%-plus of Americans say they intend to vote for Obama. Where have they been for the last four years? I think there are several reasons why a president as awful as Obama can command substantial support. The first is that an enormous number of Americans’ fortunes are more closely tied to government spending than to the economy. If you spend $3 to $4 trillion a year, you can buy a lot of votes.

The problem is compounded by the fact that so many Americans don’t pay any income taxes. If you don’t pay income taxes, and if you aren’t especially public-spirited, why, exactly, should you object to the Democrats’ spending spree? This chart from Investors Business Daily illustrates the trend:

Something like 50% of American households cash government checks, and more than 40% pay no income taxes. Do the math; it isn’t surprising that borrow-and-spend has more political appeal than it deserves.

Another factor is sheer partisanship. For millions of people, party loyalty is strong enough to bend perceptions of reality–or at least to bend the manner in which reality is described to pollsters. Thus, throughout the Obama years, African-Americans have rated the economy better than other demographic groups, even though objectively, they have suffered disproportionately. That can only be explained by loyalty to “their guy.” More broadly, Democrats express much more optimism about the economy than Republicans and Independents, as this Rasmussen poll finds:

Democrats have a much more optimistic view of the U.S. economy than either Republicans or unaffiliated adults.

Currently, just 36% of Democrats believe the economy is in poor shape, according to new Rasmussen Reports polling. Nearly twice as many Republicans (67%) offer such a pessimistic view. So do 54% of those not affiliated with either major party.

Put bluntly, if you are delusional about the economy, it makes sense that you might be willing to vote for Obama.

Currently, President Obama is hanging around like a sports team that by rights ought to be losing big, but is only a few points behind. In sports, the team that hangs around often puts on a spurt and wins in the end. In this year’s election, I don’t think Obama will be so fortunate. The fact that he commands as much support as he does is troubling, but reality will win out eventually. Here is a prediction: no liberal commentator will say anything of the sort before November, but as soon as the election results are in, a chorus of liberals will say that it is remarkable Obama performed as well as he did. Given how lousy the economy has been, one would have expected him to get clobbered.

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