Like a receding tide, President Obama's public support is reverting to boundaries familiar from last November's election.
As his job approval rating soared during his first months in office, Obama's support surged beyond the coalition that elected him with nearly 53 percent of the vote. In a wide array of surveys, he recorded elevated support not only in groups that favored him last year -- such as Hispanics, college-educated white women and young people -- but also in several that resisted him, particularly seniors, working-class whites and college-educated white men.
But amid frustration over the pace of economic recovery and ideologically polarizing struggles with congressional Republicans, polls such as the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor have found those gains largely evaporated, especially among groups that were initially skeptical of him. Obama's job approval rating, both overall and among key demographic groups, is converging with his share of the vote from last November.
On the one hand, that pattern testifies to the solidity of Obama's core coalition, even amid six months of frenetic legislative activity and a recession that has continued to punish the American economy. On the other, it shows that his initial course has failed to convert many voters who gave him a second look after preferring John McCain last year.
While legislative successes or economic good news might improve Obama's ratings, for now the president has descended from the political stratosphere and is operating with a more conventional coalition of support as he seeks to advance his agenda through Congress.
"Once his job approval hits the percentage of the vote he got on Election Day, that means... his honeymoon is over," said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. "That's the official demarcation denoting the end of the honeymoon. It was a good one for him, it lasted six months, but now he's back to where he was on Election Day."
White House aides have brushed off the decline in Obama's ratings as the inevitable consequence of pursuing an ambitious -- and bruising -- legislative agenda. "He doesn't think you put your gold-plated approval rating up on a shelf and admire it for the next four or eight years," senior White House adviser David Axelrod recently told reporters. "He is prepared to fight his way through this."
Fluctuations in approval are not unusual for presidents: Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton saw their first-term approval ratings skid below 40 percent before recovering for decisive re-election victories. Obama still receives elevated marks from Americans on most measures of personal leadership, like strength and empathy, and he's skillfully attracted support for his agenda from institutional interests, like drug companies and utilities, usually aligned with the GOP.
But his overall approval rating has eroded over the past month. In the Heartland Monitor poll, for instance, it slipped from 61 percent in April to 56 percent in early July. A National Public Radio poll, conducted July 22 through July 26 and released Wednesday, put his approval at 53 percent, as did the daily Gallup tracking poll Wednesday. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey also released Wednesday also found 53 percent approved. At the same time, the share of Americans who believe the country is on the right track has slipped again after spiking in the wake of Obama's election.
The result has been to move the president back to something like square one in his political coalition. In April's Heartland Monitor poll, Obama registered job approval ratings with a wide variety of groups that were higher than the share of the vote he attracted from them last November. In the latest poll, which surveyed 1,202 adults from July 5 to 12, Obama's approval both from groups he carried last November and those that preferred McCain more closely matched last fall's results.
While these results show Obama remaining very popular with the groups that elected him last fall, Newhouse says Democrats ought to be concerned about his trajectory among supporters and skeptics alike. "In terms of re-election and looking down the road, he still has his coalition put together, but if I'm in the White House, I'm not liking the trend right now," Newhouse said. "I have to believe that a decent number of voters who voted for me [Obama] in November, they might not have been in love with me or my policies, they simply were holding their nose about Republicans and George Bush. With those voters, he has not closed the sale on himself and his policies."
In particular, the results of the July Heartland Monitor show the white electorate returning to patterns familiar from the past 15 years of razor-thin balance between the parties. Like other Democrats before him, Obama is generating the most support among college-educated white women and struggling among both non-college and college-educated men. Non-college white women, the so-called "waitress moms," loom as a conflicted swing group.
In the Heartland Monitor survey, college-educated white women not only give Obama solid approval ratings (58-32 percent), but pluralities say they trust him more than Republicans to generate answers on the economy and believe his agenda is creating more, rather than less, opportunity for people like them. By contrast, 50 percent of non-college and 53 percent of college-educated white men say they disapprove of Obama's performance -- in each case, a sharp increase from April. Just 41 percent of both non-college and college white men approved.
Across a wide range of questions, these blue- and white-collar men expressed pessimism about the country's direction bordering on alienation. By 41-28 and 45-27 percent respectively, a plurality of both the non-college and college-educated white men said Obama's agenda had decreased, rather than enlarged, opportunity for people like them. Substantial majorities of both the blue- and white-collar white men said they believe government creates more obstacles than opportunities for their advancement -- and each group expressed pessimism about the economic prospects for the next generation. Blue-collar men already prefer congressional Republicans over Obama to craft answers to the economy; the white-collar men split about evenly.
On most of these questions, working-class white women fall between well-educated women, who lean toward Obama, and white men, who tilt away. Obama's disapproval rating among non-college white women also jumped by 11 percentage points in the Heartland Monitor polls from April to June, but more still approve (49 percent) than disapprove (41 percent). More trust Obama over Republicans on the economy, but they split almost exactly in half over whether his agenda is increasing, or reducing, opportunity for people like them. They are nearly as negative as blue-collar men about government's impact on their opportunities and almost as skeptical about the prospects for the next generation. But compared to blue-collar men, they are even more uneasy about the motivations of private employers and the long-term trends that have increased volatility in the economy -- all of which suggests they may be more receptive to the sort of activist government agenda Obama is proposing, if they can be convinced it will benefit them.
Brent McGoldrick, a vice-president at FD, a communications strategy firm that conducted the Heartland Monitor poll, said the survey and the firm's focus groups underscore the extent to which many white men "feel left out of his policies." The controversy over Obama's response to the arrest of African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. may add to the president's difficulties with those voters, McGoldrick notes. But the president's biggest problem with them is that he has inflamed their inherent skepticism about government involvement in the economy: "[White] men tend to get ticked off by the programs, the spending, the debt," he said.
Ruy Teixeira, a public opinion analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress, agrees that skepticism about the effectiveness of the stimulus package Democrats passed earlier this year is rekindling suspicion of government among groups typically dubious of Washington, like blue-collar men. "Obama is in a state right now... where people who started off somewhat skeptical of the role of government and somewhat skeptical of Obama just become even more so," said Teixeira. Underscoring his conclusion was one striking result from the NPR survey released Wednesday: Majorities of both non-college and college-educated whites said Obama's agenda had swelled the deficit without alleviating the recession or stanching the loss of jobs.
To Teixeira, the key for Obama is results. If the economy improves, he predicts, Obama is likely to regain support from many of the groups that kicked the tires on the administration earlier this year but are now backing away. But if the economy remains sluggish as federal deficits grow, Teixeira added, "the potential for an anti-government backlash is very real. You could see his support really crater out among these non-college whites."
Such a backlash among working-class whites was central to the surge that allowed Republicans to recapture both the House and Senate in 1994, after Clinton's chaotic first two years. In one sense, that risk isn't as acute for Democrats today. Working-class white voters still represented just over half of all voters in the early 1990s. Now they constitute just below 40 percent of voters, while minority voters, who still back Obama overwhelmingly, have doubled their share of the electorate to about one-fourth. (College-educated whites have held steady at about one-third of all voters.)
But while Obama demonstrated in 2008 that Democrats could build a majority national coalition with only very limited support from blue-collar whites, and even college-educated white men, that calculus will be more difficult for Democrats running next year in lunch-bucket states like Ohio, Missouri and Michigan. "Obama doesn't need [those voters] that badly right now," said Newhouse, "but I can assure you that his House and Senate and gubernatorial candidates need those voters."