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Posted at 12:49 PM ET, 12/ 7/2010

Does President Obama have a liberal problem?

By Chris Cillizza



Are liberals on the verge of abandoning President Obama?

In the wake of the compromise on tax cuts and unemployment benefits announced last night, the dominant storyline has been liberal unhappiness directed at President Obama.

Wrote The Post's Perry Bacon Jr.:

"Some liberal lawmakers and activists angrily attacked the Obama administration Monday night for striking a deal with Republicans on extending Bush-era tax rates, an issue that has the potential to worsen the divide between the White House and what it has called the 'professional left.' "

Led by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), who called the deal an "absolute disaster," and Washington Rep. Jim McDermott, who called it the president's "Gettysburg" (better than a Waterloo comparison, at least), liberals promised to fight the tax-cut compromise -- insisting that Obama had cut a bad deal with Republicans.

The outrage over the tax-cut compromise is only the latest betrayal by Obama in the eyes of liberals. The list is long: an unwillingness to fight for a public option on health care, the backsliding on a promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, an increase in troop levels in Afghanistan and so on and so forth. (You can read the full litany of alleged sins Obama has committed against liberals in Katrina vanden Heuvel's thoughtful column here.)

The rising din of criticism from the left raises an obvious question: Does Obama have a liberal problem?

The answer, polling suggests, is not really.

In the latest Associated Press survey, which was conducted Nov. 18-22, Obama is standing quite strong among liberals.

While just 48 percent of the overall sample approve of the job Obama is doing, 80 percent of self-identified liberals feel the same -- a stratospherically high number.

The story is much the same on Obama's personal favorability ratings. An AP poll in the field just after the 2010 election showed that 90 percent of liberals felt favorably inclined to Obama as compared with 55 percent overall.

Gallup's numbers tell a similar story, though they do provide a bit more fodder for those who believe there is a steady erosion of Obama's liberal support base.

(If you haven't bookmarked Gallup's presidential approval page, do it now. You can lose an afternoon in there. Just fascinating stuff, well presented.)

In February, Obama's approval rating among liberals in the Gallup weekly tracking poll stood at 79 percent. (His overall approval was 50 percent.)

On the week of the election -- Nov. 1-7 -- Obama's approval among liberals was a virtually identical 78 percent even as his overall job approval had dipped to 45 percent.

For those looking to make the case that Obama has slipped among liberals since the election, a case can -- sort of -- be made as his approval numbers in the subsequent Gallup tracks have been 72 percent, 73 percent and, in the most recent weekly poll, 70 percent.

Still, it's just as likely that any slight dip among a subgroup like liberals is due to a variance in the Gallup sample for the week rather than any sign of a steep decline in Obama's numbers.

 

History, too, suggests that Obama hasn't lost any outsized chunk of his liberal base.

In a January 1995 Washington Post/ABC poll, 65 percent of liberals approved of the job President Bill Clinton was doing while 32 percent disapproved. (Overall, 45 percent approved of the job Clinton was doing while 51 percent disapproved.)

Gallup's December 1994 data shows similar numbers with Clinton at 61 percent, 65 percent and 66 percent in its three weekly tracking polls of that month.

All of that is not to say that the discontent within the so-called "professional left" -- thank you, Robert Gibbs! -- is meaningless.

What it could -- and we emphasize could -- do is provide the impetus for a primary challenge from Obama's ideological left.

(As we have written before, primary challenges to sitting presidents are almost always unsuccessful but are also almost always detrimental to the incumbent's chances in the general election.)

The problem with that scenario for discontented liberals is that they have no obvious candidate around whom to rally.

Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold has delivered a Sherman-esque statement on his lack of interest in a presidential primary challenge to the sitting incumbent, and,  through surrogates, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has been similarly unequivocal.

With Feingold and Dean on the sidelines, there isn't a candidate to fill that void in a credible and serious way.

And without that sort of candidate, it's hard to judge what actual impact the professional left's discontent with Obama will have on the coming presidential fight.

History suggests that while base voters -- Democrat and Republican -- are almost always unhappy in some way, shape or form with a president of their own party, they rarely defect to the other side. Why? Basic partisanship wins out in a binary choice where the other option -- the nominee of the other party -- is simply unpalatable.

If unhappiness among the liberal political class seeps down to the average liberal voter, apathy could set in -- a potential 2012 turnout problem that Obama and his political team would have to address more directly.

But polling suggests that such an erosion is yet to begin in any statistically meaningful way -- yet. And so, talk of an Obama liberal problem is mostly just talk at the moment.

By Chris Cillizza  | December 7, 2010; 12:49 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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