Does President Obama have a problem with his political base? That conclusion seems inescapable in recent weeks, as prominent liberal voices have expressed their unhappiness with the president, especially in regards to compromises in the health care reform legislation passed last month in the Senate. Howard Dean, for one, said he would prefer to "kill the Senate bill" and start over, as did groups like MoveOn.org and prominent progressive bloggers like Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake and Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos.
Encapsulating the theme, Doonesbury's Mark Slackmeyer -- the comic strip's most "unreconstructed" liberal -- vented his frustration with Obama during a week in which the fictional NPR talk show host pronounced Obama a "complete disappointment" and declared that Obama had "totally lost me."
Now of course, Doonesbury is a work of fiction, but you still have to assume that if a pollster asked, Slackmeyer would have answered "disapprove" when asked to rate the president's performance. How many real-world liberal Democrats share that sentiment?
According to the daily tracking poll conducted all year by the Gallup organization, very few.
The chart below shows Obama's approval rating tabulated by a combination of party and ideology (published on Gallup's Web site). While Obama's rating has declined across the political spectrum, nearly nine out of 10 liberal Democrats -- an average of 87 percent in December -- approve of the job Obama is doing as president.
While Obama's numbers have declined modestly among liberal Democrats since last April (from 95 percent to 87 percent), the declines have been more pronounced among conservative Democrats, moderate to liberal Republicans and "pure independents" (those who do not "lean" to either party).
The less familiar pattern in the Gallup data is the way Obama's approval rose slightly among all Democrats during the first few months of his presidency before receding modestly over the summer and fall of 2009. As a result, Obama's rating among liberal Democrats the week before Christmas (89 percent) was just a single percentage point lower than in the first week of his presidency (90 percent). None of this suggests a full revolt.
Now we should add this caution: Self-described ideology and party identification are attitudes that can change over time and, according to Gallup's data, they have shifted slightly during 2009. Over the course of the year, Gallup shows a roughly 5 percentage point decline in the "leaned Democrat" category and a matching increase in "leaned Republicans." The liberal Democrat subgroup fell slightly from 17 percent of all adults in February to 15 percent in December.
But wait. Perhaps liberal discontent is not evident in the simple approval rating but might be more evident in a measure of the strength of liberal support. Obama may not have "totally lost" liberals like the fictional Slackmeyer, but the first year of the Obama presidency may have them feeling dispirited if still generally supportive.
Unfortunately, the Gallup Daily tracking does not probe for intensity of feeling about the presidential approval question, but the monthly surveys conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post include a follow-up that asks respondents whether they approve (or disapprove) "strongly or somewhat."
Between late February and mid-December, the ABC/Post survey shows an overall decline in Obama's strongly favorable rating from 43 percent to 31 percent. Among liberal Democrats, strong approval started out at 77 percent in February and varied between a low of 72 percent and a high of 81 percent through mid-September. It fell in October (65 percent) and November (67 percent) before rebounding in December (76 percent).
Given the small sample sizes involved, it is probably best to focus on the averages: Among liberal Democrats, the ABC/Post poll found a decline in strong approval from 78 percent in the first three months of the Obama presidency to 69 percent over the last three. A decline, to be sure, but at least two-thirds of liberal Democrats still say they strongly approve of the job Obama is doing as president.
Some on the left quarrel with the notion of measuring "the base" with a public opinion poll. Blogger Bob Brigham, for example, argues at the site MyDD that Obama's base is small if defined in terms of Obama's campaign contributors or volunteers. By his estimate, these were just 6 percent and 2 percent, respectively, of the 69 million Americans who voted for Obama. As such, he argues, "there is little reason to believe that national polls of Democrats represent the base."
Perhaps, but given that liberal Democrats as defined by Gallup currently represent just 15 percent of adults, the math necessary to suggest a smaller hidden revolt among Obama's most enthusiastic supporters in 2008 gets harder.
And any discussion of the Democratic base needs to consider African-Americans. Gallup's data shows virtually no change in Obama's approval rating from African-Americans over the course of the year. It averaged 92 percent, with very little variation over the course of the year. In December it averaged 90 percent.
Obama may have an enthusiasm problem among his 2008 volunteers and donors, although that case remains empirically unproven. The chart above illustrates the bigger and more readily apparent problem for 2010: declines in Obama's job approval rating over the latter half of 2009 that came mostly from voters in the middle, among liberal and moderate Republicans, true independents and, to a lesser extent, conservative Democrats.