President Obama, don't risk your base

The media obsesses over Obama poll numbers, ignoring a surprising fact: His standing is dropping with liberals, too


Joan Walsh
August 22, 2009 2:22PM (UTC)

Could it be? Is it possible that some of President Obama's polling problems reflect his losing support with his liberal base? Two recent polls say exactly that.

The Plum Line's Greg Sargent pulled out some overlooked tabs from the Washington Post/ABC poll, whose topline findings were bad news for the president. The poll's summary:

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Among all Americans, 49 percent now express confidence that Obama will make the right decisions for the country, down from 60 percent at the 100-day mark in his presidency. Forty-nine percent now say they think he will be able to spearhead significant improvements in the system, down nearly 20 percentage points from before he took office.

As challenges to Obama's initiatives have mounted over the summer, pessimism in the nation's direction has risen: Fifty-five percent see things as pretty seriously on the wrong track, up from 48 percent in April.

But Sargent consulted the WaPo's polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta, who confirmed some findings about Obama's eroding support within his base. While the media paid most attention to Obama's slipping standing with independents – his job approval with that group stands at 50 percent, the lowest of his presidency, and more independents strongly disapprove than strongly approve of how he is doing – there were also signs of slippage with his base.

For instance, while the percentage of Americans who have confidence that Obama "will make the right decisions for the country" dropped 11 points since April, among liberals it dropped 12 points – from an admittedly high 90 percent to 78 percent this week. The percentage of liberals who believe Obama can make a significant change in the healthcare system has dropped 13 percent, more than the 11 percent overall.

The WaPo's Agiesta cautioned Sargent against making too much of those findings, arguing that the drop among independents was probably playing a bigger role in his overall decline. But she did admit, “This is the first sign that something is going wrong with his base.”

And there were more such signs over at the weekly tracking poll run by Research 2000 for the Daily Kos. For the first time, Obama's standing with Democrats dropped more than his status with Republicans or Independents.

So what does it all mean? In a week marked by weaselly behavior by anonymous and big-name Democrats (Steny Hoyer and Kent Conrad, yes, I'm talking to you) alike, the party's progressive base began to push back. "The left of the left," as the clueless Obama advisor called the president's most loyal supporters, won't sit in the back of the political bus anymore. I might be the only one who's making this connection, but I think the shocking revelations by former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, that the Bush administration manipulated terror warnings for political gain, should strengthen the spine of progressive Democrats on healthcare and every other issue – because they show we were right then, even though we were mocked and marginalized, just as we're right now.

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Glenn Greenwald laid out this pattern well: When Howard Dean, now the hero of the healthcare movement, said the Bush administration was politicizing terror alerts in 2004, he was rebuked by John Kerry, derided by USA Today, treated like an irresponsible lefty by my friend Chris Matthews on "Hardball," and called "berserk" by the now marginally relevant Tucker Carlson. But of course, this Bush scandal – just like torture allegations, the U.S. attorney scandal, the faked justification for the Iraq war, the FISA sellout – all followed a sadly familiar trajectory, as a Greenwald regular observed: First, they're just the fantasies of crazy, hysterical, paranoid, wild-eyed, partisan, left-wing loonies. Next, they're old news, nothing to talk about, move along here.

To his credit, Chris Matthews has been talking a lot about the Ridge revelations; I was on "Hardball" tonight with the fantastic Ron Reagan to discuss this latest Bush outrage. (Matthews particularly enjoyed my deriding Donald Rumsfeld for sending out his "manservants" to denounce Ridge; I enjoyed it too.) I also asked: Isn't it a kind of terrorism to terrorize people into the political behavior you can't achieve by honest democratic means?

Before I drop in the Hardball video, I want to say: This has been a good week for liberal Democrats fighting back. Anonymous White House officials will no longer be able to say they're surprised by the passion and values of their base. Keep backing Jane Hamsher as she pushes to get progressives and others to commit to rejecting a reform bill that doesn't contain a public option. And weigh in here, in comments, about whether you're game for a Sept. 13 March on Washington for real healthcare reform, floated by the invaluable Robert Reich, and backed by Rep. Chaka Fattah.

Here's "Hardball," with Ron, Chris and me talking about the Ridge revelations. Have a good weekend!

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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