The economy is recovering, however slowly. Gas prices are easing downward after rocketing skyward earlier this year. And President Obama is considering dramatically drawing down troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are all reasons for Americans to be optimistic about the direction the country is headed. But instead, survey after survey shows a populace angry with their situation and convinced it’s not getting better any time soon.
A decade of economic turmoil, international conflict, and increasing partisan rancor has left a once-optimistic nation in the grips of a deep and pervasive pessimism. The sense that everything is going wrong has tamped down hopes, dreams, and expectations. And there are few signs that anything will change in the near term, all of which is having a dramatic impact on the political tone.
It shouldn’t be this way. A year ago, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood just north of 9,800, and the unemployment rate was 9.6 percent. Today, the unemployment rate is 9.1 percent. And even after a terrible week, the Dow Jones is still higher than 12,000 points, and the number of people filing for first-time unemployment benefits is down nearly 10 percent.
But Americans don’t see the positive trend. Instead, the most obvious daily barometer of the economy the average American sees—the price of a gallon of gas—has risen by more than a dollar in the last year. That extra cash coming out of someone’s pocket has a real impact, both on a family’s bottom line and on its collective psychology. Spending $65 to fill up a gas tank means surrendering a date night with a spouse, or a movie with the kids.
We take that blow to the psyche out on our elected officials. In a poll released on June 6, 2010, when the economy was in much worse shape, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed 50 percent approved of President Obama’s handling of the economy. Now, after a year in which the economy measurably improved, a poll released this week from Washington Post/ABC News, just 40 percent say they approve of the job Obama’s doing on the economy, while 59 percent disapprove.
Obama’s not the only one Americans blame. There is plenty to go around, and virtually every elected official and institution in Washington is taking the hit. Fully 44 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the federal government works, and another 25 percent are angry, according to the most recent poll. Two-thirds of voters believe the country is on the wrong track. Only 34 percent say they are likely to vote to reelect their own member of Congress, while 55 percent say they will look around for a new candidate—a level comparable to just before the 2010 elections, when Republicans swept 63 Democratic-held seats and won control of the House.
Even good news can’t overwhelm frustration and anger. After ordering a raid that resulted in Osama bin Laden’s death, Obama benefited from a bump that shot his approval rating to its highest point in more than a year. But that bump is gone; the new survey shows just 47 percent approve of his job performance, while 49 percent disapprove.
The economic malaise Americans feel is the greatest threat to Obama’s chances of being reelected, far outstripping any Republican contender’s threat.
That’s not to say Americans have definitively made up their minds about his economic chops. Obama’s most recent predecessors have also sunk to those depths, and most of them survived. In March 2004, just eight months before he won reelection, only 39 percent of Americans told Washington Post/ABC pollsters they approved of the way George W. Bush was handling the economy. Bill Clinton sunk to a 38 percent economic approval rating in June 1993, before his party botched the 1994 midterms, but he had recovered by the time his own reelection rolled around; by October 1996, 58 percent of Americans liked what Clinton was doing.
If Obama’s ratings sink further, it’s time for his political team to panic. George H.W. Bush lost reelection in 1992; the last Washington Post/ABC News poll before that election, conducted in July of that year, showed only 25 percent of Americans approved of the elder Bush’s performance. He had been below the 40 percent mark since October 1991.
The pervasive pessimism voters feel, and the antipathy they feel toward elected officials, has already instructed candidates’ political strategies. Voters have demonstrated they are more in the mood to punish those in charge, rather than rewarding someone with a new plan for recovery.
Consider the recent special election in New York’s 26th Congressional District. Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul spent virtually her entire paid media campaign talking about what she opposed—namely, House Republicans’ plan to alter Medicare. Republican Jane Corwin acknowledged, just before she lost the race, that she should have pushed back against Hochul’s attacks far earlier.
Even in Democratic territory in Los Angeles, negative politics works better than staying positive. In her first ad in a special election runoff to replace former Rep. Jane Harman, Los Angeles City Councilmember Janice Hahn this week compared her Republican opponent’s views on abortion to Sarah Palin’s. Obama won 64 percent of the district vote in 2008. But Hahn’s strategy centers more on blasting her opponent than on touting her own proposals.
Expect more of the same next year, when Obama and his Republican rival will spotlight that which voters loathe in their opposition more than that which voters support. The success of that strategy will depend on which side voters blame more—and right now, voters are in no mood to forgive.
This article appears in the June 9, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.