Barack Obama — deep under water where it counts

Results from a new Gallup poll should be keeping President Obama and his supporters awake at night. The poll asked respondents whether they approve or disapprove of Obama’s performance in seven areas: the economy, jobs, the budget, immigration, foreign affairs, education, and fighting terrorism. The only area where a majority approved of Obama’s performance was fighting terrorism.

A narrow plurality approved of the job Obama has done in foreign affairs (supposedly, somehow, his area of strength) and education. In the other three areas, Obama was under water and, indeed, under 40 percent.

The economy, jobs, and (probably to a lesser extent) the budget surely are the areas of greatest importance to voters in this election. Here is the breakdown for them:

Economy: 36 percent approve; 60 percent disapprove
Creating jobs: 37 percent approve; 58 percent disapprove
The budget: 30 percent approve; 64 percent disapprove

Can Obama be re-elected with these kinds of numbers? You wouldn’t think so. Here are the approval numbers regarding the economy for presidents who have been reelected in modern times:

George W. Bush’s rating in August 2004 (46%)
Bill Clinton’s in August 1996 (54%)
Ronald Reagan’s in July 1984 (50%)

Obama trails his closest competitor, George W. Bush, by 10 points.

Yet, Obama is no worse than even with Romney in the polls. This is probably due in part to the fact that voters still like Obama personally. In addition, perhaps they cut him some slack because they understand that the economy was already in terrible shape when he became President.

But can this thinking see Obama through to victory? His likeability is in jeopardy due to the harsh negativity of his campaign. As Steve Hayward says, even the MSM has noticed. To be sure, it mostly portrays the negativity as both sides’ fault. But Obama might well lose some of his personal popularity even if he is viewed as only as bad as Romney.

As for the poor economy Obama inherited, I imagine that this reality has already been taken into account by the voters who tell Gallup they disapprove of his performance on the economy. Moreover, as the campaign progresses, these voters presumably will demand that Obama present an economic plan that they believe can succeed going forward. All I’ve heard so far by way of such a plan is to increase taxes on the very wealthy. Even voters sympathetic in principle to such increases may well doubt that higher taxes on the wealthy will spur a dynamic economic recovery.

Voters will also expect Romney to present his alternative. Fortunately, Romney has grabbed onto a programmatic theme that seems more resonant than Obama’s – the idea of unleashing the economy. To the extent that Americans haven’t given up, they must believe that the American economy – that long-time giant – still has untapped potential. Romney’s plan is to permit that giant to do its thing, by freeing it from excessive regulation, permitting it to develop untapped natural resources, facilitating free trade, etc. This seems like a potentially powerful theme, which may explain why Team Obama saw the need to counter it with something resembling (but better stated than) Joe Biden’s Danville, Virginia riff.

For these reasons, both the fundamentals and the dynamics of this race should favor Mitt Romney. The next two and a half months will tell us whether these advantages translate into a Republican victory.