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At 39 Percent, Obama's Reminded the Worst Could Lie Ahead

At 39 Percent, Obama's Reminded the Worst Could Lie Ahead

By David Paul Kuhn - August 15, 2011

There it was: 39 percent. Floor broke. Threshold crossed. The close of Barack Obama’s awful week. One more awful August. On Sunday, for the first time in his presidency, Obama’s public approval rating dipped below 40 percent in the Gallup Poll.

Now polls are like life. The older one gets, the less remarkable the ebbs and flows become. Or the longer the trend line, the smaller the blips seem. But some poll numbers capture more. Gallup has an innate symbolism. As gold standards do. And 39 percent is emblematic of that oldest incumbent problem: selling hard times.

The poll bookends a historically bad week. The atmospherics presidents dread. There is the mercurial stock market, trending more down than up. Last week, consumer sentiment hit its lowest point since the dusk of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

The Carter-Obama comparison is as cliché as it is disconcerting (for Democrats). Carter’s undoing can be cast as rare. Lyndon Johnson would surely have lost in 1968. But he did not run. Carter was the first Democratic president defeated since . . . 1888.

Every presidential campaign is a rerun of the past. Just as every re-election campaign is a referendum on the present. In 1888, the Republicans’ previous nominee, James Blaine, aided the current GOP nominee, Benjamin Harrison. Blaine hit hard: “The Democratic Party in power is a standing menace to the prosperity of the country.”

Today’s messages are distilled for a bumper sticker world. Mitt Romney’s motto: “Obama isn’t working.” So the playbook instructs. Bad times. Keep the heat on the incumbent. Thumbs up or down. Never mind me. He isn’t working. “It is time to get America working again,” said the newcomer to the 2012 race, Rick Perry, in his announcement Saturday. So we recall Ronald Reagan’s knockdown question. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Standard & Poor’s first downgrade of U.S. debt begs that political attack. It’s like the 39 percent mark. The fact alone is small. What it evokes is not.

But let us save the White House its talking points. The election is not tomorrow. Polls can also rise. The 2010 electorate (whiter, older) is not the 2012 electorate (browner, younger). There’s the fact every White House favors: incumbent candidates won nearly three of every four contests since the Civil War. The eventual Republican nominee will seek a referendum. Challengers do so in hard times. But Obama will do what incumbents do: Attack the alternative. Frame the challenger as too small for the task.

Obama has some rotten campaign frames to choose from. “It could have been worse.” The counter-factual rarely works. “You may think I’m bad, but he’s worse.” That can work.

“The life of every human being on Earth can depend on the experience and judgment and vigilance of the person in the Oval Office,” a Carter ad went. America was comfortable enough in Reagan’s judgment to vote against Carter’s.

That pitch sometimes does connect, however. George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 with a 48 percent approval rating. Romney is said to be Republicans’ strongest general election candidate. And maybe he is. But Romney is exceptionally vulnerable to W’s 2004 strategy. Presidential contests are contests between two characters and contests of character. I’ve long belabored this point. But Romney must fear it. The flip-flopper attack could break him.

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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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