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08.17.10

Why He Turns Voters Off

Voters are tired of the president pursuing policies they don’t want, and he'll find out just how much in November. Douglas E. Schoen on the message in the latest polls—and how Obama can turn it around.

There is a fundamental problem with the way President Obama has governed.

Since taking office, he has systematically put forth policies the American people do not want. The net result is a crisis of confidence and legitimacy in the American political system and our institutions.

The president is now at record low levels of approval—close to 40 percent overall, and in the mid- to low 30s among swing voters.

The GOP now holds a six- to seven-point advantage in the generic vote for Congress—which, come November, almost certainly will give the Republicans control of the House and make control of the Senate a real possibility as well.

A majority of voters now believe that Obama has failed on the federal budget deficit, reducing government spending, changing business as usual in Washington, and the economy.

Put simply, we are looking at an unprecedented electoral blowout because the administration has made a systematic set of bad decisions that have had an adverse impact on public opinion.

Indeed, those closest to the president have made clear that he is pursuing policies that do not have the support of the American people.

A majority of voters now believe that Obama has failed on each of the 12 issues tested on the August 2010 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, particularly the federal budget deficit, reducing government spending, changing business as usual in Washington, and the economy.

And in an extraordinary survey of 1,100 likely voters that has gotten little attention or publicity, the president’s own pollster, Joel Benenson, has shown clearly and demonstratively that the administration’s policies and general approach to governance not only have failed, but also have not addressed the American people’s fundamental concerns.

The Benenson survey shows that the administration’s approach is fundamentally at variance with the one voters desire. Voters favor tax cuts over government investment by a clear majority and are looking for candidates and parties that champion fiscal discipline, limited government, deficit reduction, a free market, pro-growth agenda, and comprehensive plans to create employment opportunities, enable entrepreneurship, and aid business creation.

Indeed, when asked which approach to strengthening the economy they prefer, 54 percent of the respondents in the Third Way/Benenson poll preferred cutting taxes for businesses to help jump-start private sector job creation and economic growth, while 32 percent said they prefer making new government investments.

Just 14 percent of respondents said the government is doing a good job handling problems such as inflation and unemployment, compared with 41 percent who say it’s doing a poor job. Meanwhile, 43 percent of the respondents said the Democrats in Congress support a failed economic agenda, while 34 percent said the same of the Republicans.

Confidence in the president and congressional leadership’s economic policies are the lowest they have been since the start of the Obama administration.

A majority of respondents in the Third Way/Benenson poll said the steps taken by the president and Congress on the economy over the past 18 months have hurt the national economy and made it weaker.

There is a widespread perception that the health-care legislation is going to increase rather than reduce costs and has put government in a position that does not emphasize deficit reduction and reining in spending.

Peter Beinart: Grow a Pair, DemocratsSixty percent of all voters now favor repeal of the health-care bill, and more voters say they are likely to oppose a lawmaker who backed the president’s health-care initiative than those who say they would support such a candidate.

The crisis in confidence has led to economic dislocation at an unparalleled, unprecedented rate. Since April, 1,155,000 unemployed people dropped out of the active labor force and were not counted as unemployed. Had they been counted, the unemployment rate would have been 10.2 percent in July, rather than 9.5 percent.

Consumer confidence is plummeting as a result. The latest Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan survey of consumers found that consumer confidence dropped in July to its lowest level in nine months.

Voters are worried about the cost implications of the stimulus, as well as the effectiveness of Obama’s job creation policies and the expansive deficit, a trend that is likely to be exacerbated with the national debt now exceeding $13 trillion.

For consumers, a “weak job market, heavy debt burdens and lacking political leadership are adding to consumer caution,” Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan says in its July survey of consumers.

As a result, consumers are reluctant to spend, entrepreneurs are reluctant to invest, and employers are reluctant to hire to the degree necessary to spur economic growth.

This crisis in confidence is pushing voters to support Republicans and widening the enthusiasm gap between the two parties.

At this point, Democratic support has been so depleted that the only option voters have is to support a largely but not entirely discredited GOP.

But make no mistake: Neither party is perceived to have offered a comprehensive set of policy initiatives based on fiscal discipline, limited government, deficit reduction, and a free market, pro-growth agenda.

Voters are no more confident in the Republican leadership’s agenda than the Democrats’—the GOP is seen as the “Party of No,” failing to offer anything except across-the-board opposition to Obama’s policies.

Indeed, the Third Way/Benenson survey found that one-third of the electorate believes the GOP has no economic agenda. Moreover, when voters were asked to identify which party “cares about taxpayers,” “Is trying to create economic growth,” and "is on your side,” the Republicans trailed the Democrats in all three.

And in the August 2010 WSJ/NBC news poll, 43 percent of voters said they are concerned “that the Republicans have offered no specific plans or programs to deal with the issues facing the country so it is hard to know what they would do if they were to win the majority in Congress.”

And indeed, it is because of this finding that the administration and the president are increasingly becoming partisan and political in their approach.

But the swing voters who hold the fate of the Democratic Party in their hands care about three things first and foremost: reigniting the economy, deficit reduction, and job creation.

Looking ahead to the November midterm elections, more than twice as many voters said they would prefer a candidate for Congress who will start from scratch with new ideas to shrink government, cut taxes, and grow the economy (64 percent) over one who will stick with Obama’s economic policies (30 percent).

Winning the votes of swing voters will require a bold new focus from the president and the Democratic Party. They must put forth a set of focused initiatives aimed at reducing the debt, and cutting spending, with an emphasis on tax cuts, fiscal stimulus, and a series of initiatives to stimulate and encourage job creation.

They must abandon their failed policies and adopt a bold new commitment to fiscal discipline and targeted fiscal stimulus of the private sector and entrepreneurship. Finally, they must accept the fact that only private enterprise can create jobs—more stimulus money is not the answer.

If the Obama administration is unable to change the widespread perception that it’s not interested in reducing spending, taxes, and regulatory burdens, the president’s hopes of winning re-election, as well as the Democrats’ prospects for success in this fall’s midterm elections, will disappear.

Douglas Schoen is a political strategist and author of the upcoming book Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System to be published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins on September 14.