Can Obama Hold the Center?

Can Obama Hold the Center?

By David Paul Kuhn - March 19, 2009

The public's approval of Barack Obama breaks along stark partisan lines, mimicking George W. Bush at the same point in his presidency.

The steady support of independents, meanwhile, has sustained Obama's overall public approval. About six in ten independents have supported Obama since he entered the White House, according to tracking by the Gallup Poll, roughly matching his public standing on the whole in March.

More from RealClearPolitics: Partisan Support for Past Presidents - How Does Obama Stack Up?

Bush, like Obama, began March 2001 with strong support from moderates. By the close of the month Bush's independent support withered to 48 percent, slimming his majority for the first time into the low 50s. Bush again neared 60 percent public support by early April, briefly dulling divisions and earning a 37 percent approval rating from Democrats.

Obama's Bush-like divisiveness, at least when party identity is concerned, may undercut the core image he constructed for himself. Obama campaigned on the theme of ushering in a post-partisan era. By inauguration day, Obama pledged to "end" the "worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."

Obama is now mired in those same political dogmas. Republicans, by consequence, have won a small victory by opposing a president who promised to unite.

Gallup finds that Obama has the approval of nine in ten Democrats, matching Bush's standing with Republicans in March 2001. Only about a fifth of the opposing party backs Obama, not unlike Bush or Bill Clinton over the same period. But neither Bush nor Clinton, while campaigning as consensus builders, made transcending the two tribes of Washington the core theme of their campaign.

Washington's partisan divide had a searing impact on the Clintons in particular. No less than Obama's onetime rival Hillary Clinton, now secretary of state, mocked Obama as the kumbaya candidate during the Democratic primary.

"I could just stand up here and say 'Let's just get everybody together, let's get unified,'" Clinton told supporters little over a year ago. "Maybe I've just lived a little long, but I have no illusions at how hard this is going to be."

Obama now realizes how hard it's going to be. Yet independents' support, combined with a still united Democratic Party, currently keeps Obama from suffering Bill Clinton's fate of early partisan gridlock.

Independents' approval of Obama has held between 59 and 62 percent since he took office, according to Gallup's weekly averages. The Pew Research Center has Obama shuffling along the same narrow terrain, 63 to 57 percent, between February and mid-March. The recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows Obama with the approval of about six in ten independents.

Americans have long offered new presidents the benefit of the doubt. Presidents tend to earn early approval ratings well exceeding their margin of the vote.

It's been clear since early February that Obama is a popular president, but not remarkably so. He is slightly more popular than the early presidencies of Bush and Clinton, though it varies by the day. He is at par with Ronald Reagan. And he is less popular than the early presidencies of Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower.

Obama is in this sense a president indicative of his era. He campaigned on "turning the page" but has found himself unable to return to earlier bipartisan chapters.

No less than Richard Nixon, who had an approval rating similar to Obama at this point in his presidency, was initially not as divisive a figure. A majority of Democrats and six in ten independents approved of Nixon by late-March 1969.

In time Nixon, like so many presidents, would begin to lose that majority as his independent support dipped below 50 percent.

Even Eisenhower, who only twice fell below the 50 percent mark in the Gallup Poll, briefly lost the majority as partisans held steady and independents ebbed. For Carter, Reagan, and generally all presidents thereafter, the loss of the majority of independents coincided with the loss of the majority.

In broad terms, a president's mandate rises and falls with the middle of the electorate.

Obama's public support today is reminiscent of Reagan's. Six in ten Americans backed Reagan by mid March 1981. Like Obama, Reagan managed similarly strong independent support-- 61 percent. Later that month, the attempt on Reagan's life offered him a second honeymoon.

But by mid-November 1981, as the economy staggered despite Reagan's Economic Recovery Act, the center began to escape Reagan and the majority followed. For the first time, half the public did not approve of his presidency. Reagan was no longer able to blame Carter for the nation's malaise. As the recession worsened, Reagan's public support fell as low as 35 percent in late January 1983.

Obama's centrist support shows no signs of flagging. But there are signs of potential weakness. Independents represent about three in ten voters. They support many of Obama's policies but remain skeptical of his guiding principles.

Pew notes that a majority of independents prefer a smaller over larger government but favor more government regulation of the private sector. Six in ten independents believe Obama should raise taxes on Americans making at least $200,000 annually. A slim majority of independents also back a new law to "make it easier for labor unions to organize workers," according to Gallup.

Still, Pew finds a quarter of independents now disapprove of the president. A majority of the middle is "angry" over the bank bailouts. Slightly fewer than half of independents support the government spending "billions of dollars" to help homeowners.

More disconcerting for Obama, the portion of independents who say Obama is listening more to Democratic liberals than to moderates has risen from a third in January to nearly half today.

Obama will likely have to reverse that last trend to keep the middle behind him, absent a jarring event. Many of the early successes of modern presidents were aided when tragedy rapidly broadened their appeal: Bush after the September 11 attacks; Reagan, again, after the failed assassination attempt; Johnson after Kennedy's assassination.

Not since the first stock market crash has the economic crisis held similar shock and awe over the public mood. Obama is an ambitious president in the mold of Johnson and Reagan. But Obama is still governing in the divided Washington of Clinton and Bush.

More from RealClearPolitics: Partisan Support for Past Presidents - How Does Obama Stack Up?

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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