Much of this support could be fragile, since the survey did not test how much of it survives counterarguments from conservatives that these groups often find persuasive. While majorities of the GOP leaning groups said they favored tougher regulation of power plants to combat climate change, other surveys suggest that they (or even the Democratic-leaning groups) would not remain as enthusiastic if critics could convince them that it would raise electricity prices. Likewise, support for a minimum-wage increase could be strained by arguments, not tested here, that it would cost jobs.
Another red flag for Obama is that younger whites show conspicuously less enthusiasm for his approach on some of these issues than other groups more firmly in his camp. Obama’s support among whites under age 30 fell from 55 percent in 2008 to 44 percent in 2012, and several of his ideas here also face turbulence among them.
In the survey, younger whites (defined here as those 18-34 to generate a sample large enough to measure) strongly favor gun rights over gun control and tougher border security over a pathway to citizenship; most also oppose the bans on both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. They tilt back in Obama’s direction on energy issues and the minimum wage.
Most worrisome for Obama was the poll’s finding that just 40 percent of adults approved of his handling of the economy, while 56 percent disapproved. Strikingly that discontent extended beyond groups like noncollege whites, always dubious of him, into constituencies at the heart of his coalition. While about two-thirds of African-Americans gave him positive marks for his economic performance, they were joined by only 52 percent of Hispanics, 44 percent of college-educated white women—and, most notably, just 40 percent of all adults ages 18 to 29 and only 31 percent of younger whites. Indeed, Obama’s economic approval rating among all whites stood at a microscopic 31 percent.
Those numbers underscore the concern of a senior White House adviser, who argued in a recent interview that while issues like climate, gun control, and immigration reform are all providing Obama opportunities to connect his coalition with the Democratic Party in a way that could outlast him, the success of that project will also pivot on his ability to deliver better economic results for average families.
“As we think about issues like immigration, climate and guns, we realize the president was reelected because people trusted his approach on the economy,” the adviser said. “He made it somewhat better, but the job was not done. If we do not focus on completing the middle-class project that he started … then nothing else we do matters.”