How a president loses his party's base

Is Obama in Jimmy Carter territory yet?

By Steve Kornacki

Published April 15, 2011 12:30PM (EDT)

Former President Jimmy Carter and President Barack Obama
Former President Jimmy Carter and President Barack Obama

Barack Obama's speech on Wednesday, in which he aggressively challenged the deficit reduction blueprint being embraced by congressional Republicans, seems to have quieted talk -- which was rampant earlier in the week -- about the president alienating his party's base. For now.

Rest assured, there will be more occasions between now and November 2012 when Obama's rhetoric or his policy choices (or both) offend vocal activists and commentators on the left -- at which point a stream of news stories will be devoted to the question of whether Obama is at risk of losing the election because of a fractured base.

The reality is that, from the standpoint of Obama's reelection, this is probably a non-issue. For all of the liberal commentariat's frustrations with Obama these past two years, the president has maintained a healthy approval rating among all Democratic voters -- and self-identified liberals in particular. Gallup's latest data has Obama scoring an 80 percent approval number among Democrats; an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll puts the number at 83 percent. Among liberal Democrats, Gallup has Obama at 80 percent, while NBC/WSJ puts his support at 79 percent. His numbers have remained steady in this range since late 2009.

A case can be made that none of this is particularly remarkable. Obama is a Democrat and he's constantly being attacked by Republicans; thus, we can reasonably expect Democrats to tell pollsters they approve of his job performance out of simple partisan loyalty, even if they are deeply frustrated with his policy decisions. There is definitely something to this -- maybe quite a bit -- but it's also worth remembering that there have been recent occasions when intraparty anger with presidents was easily detectable in polling.

To put Obama's current numbers in perspective, here's a review of where his five predecessors stood at this point in their presidencies, and what lessons for today we can draw from their experiences. (Note: Obama's overall approval rating in the latest weekly Gallup poll is 45 percent.)

Jimmy Carter

Mid-April 1979 overall approval: 40 percent

With Democrats: 52 percent

Now this is what a base problem looks like -- and it's fairly easily explained. Obviously, Carter's low score with Democrats was partly attributable to his overall low number, itself  a consequence of the stagflation that marked his presidency. Also, the post-civil rights evolution that made both parties more ideologically cohesive was still in the process of playing out; there was more philosophical diversity within the Democratic Party, making it harder for Carter -- or any Democrat -- to corral the party base.

But the bigger issue was simply that Carter's entire presidency was a fluke. He was the only Democratic candidate in 1976 to fully grasp the significance of that year's massively expanded primary and caucus calendar; the party's more logical White House prospects still believed the old rules -- which allowed candidates to hold back until late in the primary season or just before the convention and still win -- still applied. By the time they figured things out, Carter had sealed the nomination -- with only 40 percent of all primary voters backing him and without the support of many of the party's traditional coalition components.

Those who only know Carter by his modern-day caricature (our first socialist president!) may not realize that his domestic economic policies were conservative and often hostile to organized labor and key Democratic interest groups. These groups and their members had, in most cases, never liked Carter in the first place and would have blocked his nomination if they'd known how to. Thus, the Democrats were split for almost all of Carter's presidency, ultimately leading to Ted Kennedy's 1980 primary challenge to the president.

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Ronald Reagan

Mid-April 1983 overall approval: 41 percent

With Republicans: 77 percent

From a polling standpoint, the trajectory of Reagan's first two years in office was very similar to Obama's -- and for the same basic reason: The economy was in grim shape.

But Reagan also faced a similar intraparty dynamic. Like Obama, he was fundamentally a candidate of his party's base; to the New Right, his election marked an amazing opportunity to roll back the New Deal/Great Society consensus that had guided national policy for decades. Reagan delivered on taxes -- rates, especially for upper-income Americans, were slashed early in his term -- but halfway through Reagan's first term, the New Right's most vocal activists and commentators were actually quite frustrated with him. There'd been no progress on many of the issues they cared most passionately about -- abortion, school prayer, pornography -- and they believed he was far too willing to compromise with congressional Democrats on economic issues (especially after the GOP's recession-fueled defeat in the 1982 midterms). As 1983 rolled around, there were open calls from the right for Reagan to decline to seek a second term, as this January '83 AP story captured:

Hard-line conservatives will meet this weekend in Dallas to discuss complaints against the administration and perhaps lay some groundwork for challenging President Reagan if he seeks re-election in 1984.

"We've either got to fish or cut bait," said Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus. "Either we get some changes out of the administration or we have to go in a different direction."

Phillips said the purpose of the Dallas meeting of about 20 conservatives would be to "see if there is a consensus among conservatives about where we go from here."

Phillips and conservative publisher and fund-raiser Richard Viguerie are openly urging Reagan not to run again in 1984.

"I would think the conservative cause and the Republican Party would be better served if the president doesn't run for re-election," said Viguerie.

"If the president is not off the dime to turn this thing around in the next several weeks, I think there will be an all-out effort to persuade him not to run in 1984," said Phillips.

The problem with this talk was that Reagan -- like Obama today with rank-and-file liberals -- was still highly popular with the rank-and-file conservatives. They had embraced him early in the 1980 campaign (and, in many cases, years before) and they liked him enormously. They didn't abandon him, even if some conservative elites were urging them to do so.

(Also worth noting: The term "liberal Republican" was not quite the anachronism in the early '80s that it is today, and the party was more ideologically diverse.)

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George H.W. Bush

Mid-April 1991 overall approval: 77 percent

With Republicans: 91 percent

This one comes with a major asterisk: At this point in his term, Bush was basking in the afterglow of the first Gulf War, which briefly pushed his approval rating to heights never before reached in presidential polling. 

Bush actually did have a very real problem with his base. The proximate cause was his decision in the fall of 1990 to renege on his "No new taxes!" pledge. In the immediate wake of that reversal, Bush's standing among Republicans plummeted to 53 percent -- and, as memories of the Gulf triumph faded, it gradually returned to that level by the late spring of 1992.

But the real problem for Bush is that -- as with Carter -- the base had never really bought into him in the first place. He'd come to the national stage in 1980 as a moderate to liberal Republican -- supportive of abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment and disdainful of what he called Reagan's "voodoo economics." To unite the party, Reagan ended up making Bush his V.P., at which point Bush spent the next eight years renouncing his old positions and pleading with the right to accept him as a true believer. The strategy worked in that it allowed him to secure the 1988 GOP nod, but suspicions about his conservative credentials hardly vanished. In that sense, the 1990 tax deal merely confirmed what the right had long suspected about Bush.

This base problem, which wasn't helped by the sagging economy of the early '90s, gave rise to Pat Buchanan's primary challenge in 1992. The right-wing commentator was never a serious threat to steal the nomination, but he did severely embarrass Bush in New Hampshire -- grabbing nearly 40 percent of the vote -- and remained a thorn in the White House's side throughout the spring and summer. It was to mollify Buchanan and the conservative base that the '92 GOP convention in Houston showcased so many far-right speakers and so much far-right rhetoric -- a display that probably alienated some swing voters.

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Bill Clinton

Mid-April 1995 overall approval: 46 percent

With Democrats: 76 percent

Like Obama this year, Clinton entered 1995 coming off a gruesome midterm election and facing a Republican takeover on Capitol Hill. And like Obama now, Clinton emerged from his midterm debacle intent on claiming the political center, shaking off the liberal label, and exploiting GOP legislative overreach.

Clinton's support from Democrats held steady in the '70s for most of his first two years, although it dipped in the immediate wake of the 1994 midterms, when conventional wisdom held that he'd been fatally wounded and wouldn't be a viable candidate in 1996. But Clinton's Democratic support soon returned -- and grew -- when Newt Gingrich and the GOP officially took charge and began pushing their agenda through.

That same dynamic -- rallying around a president suddenly confronted with an empowered opposition party in Congress -- may be at work now, although Obama's numbers with Democrats have yet to increase from where they were before the midterms. Obama also wasn't hurt by post-midterm intraparty despair the way Clinton was -- probably because the example of Clinton's post-'94 recovery is so familiar.

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George W. Bush

Mid-April 2003 overall approval: 71 percent

With Republicans: 97 percent

Like his father, W's numbers were soaring at this point in his term because of a military triumph -- or at least something much of the country believed was a military triumph in the spring of 2003.

What's interesting is that even though his overall popularity dropped steadily over the next few years -- and fell to subterranean depths in his final years in office -- Bush's support from Republicans never fell below 85 percent for the rest of his presidency, and it was often measured at well over 90 percent. Certainly, the 9/11 attacks and the wars and Afghanistan and Iraq had plenty to do with this; Republicans eagerly embraced Bush's image as wartime president and refused to let go. His presidency also coincided with the development of a highly efficient conservative "media ecosystem" (as Adam Serwer calls it) that was effective at turning the White House's message into group think on the right.

There was something bigger at work, though -- something that made it so easy for Republicans to fall into line -- and my best guess is that it's the fact that Bush ran in 2000 essentially promising to do nothing but ... win. The right had spent the 1990s in a perpetual state of rage at Bill Clinton, mainly because he'd had the audacity to win in 1992. The right fought his legitimacy -- and reveled in absurd and inflammatory rumors and conspiracy theories (Vince Foster? Arkansas drug-running? Murder?) -- from the beginning. Their resentment was personal and cultural, and not especially ideological. (After all, Clinton's policies were genuinely moderate and business-friendly, a point that many on the right are happy to concede today; contrasting the "radical" Obama with the common sense of Clinton makes for compelling talking points.)

Anyway, the Republican base of the late 1990s wasn't really defined by its policy demands. It was defined by its desire to get rid of Clinton and to reclaim the White House. This explains the GOP's relentless drive to impeach Clinton over a sex scandal and the party's eagerness to unite behind Bush and his "compassionate conservatism" -- a philosophy that grew out of the P.R. disaster of Newt Gingrich's "revolution." In 1995, Republicans had dreamed of using their new Capitol Hill majorities to dismantle the federal government, only to watch their poll numbers fall to dreary depths when they tried to follow through. By the late '90s, the economy was surging, the debt was vanishing, and Americans -- even Republicans -- were largely content with the country's direction. The GOP was happy to give up on its ideological dreams and settle for finally beating the Democrats. So they lined up with Bush, who promised lots of tax cuts and few real spending cuts. Republicans were sick of being subjected to attack ads challenging their commitment to the social safety net.

Thus, Bush came to power in 2001 as the candidate of his party's base. But besides tax cuts, his base had no major policy aspirations. So, especially after 9/11 and the launch of two wars, Bush had an easier time than most presidents when it came to keeping his base together.

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What does this tell us about Obama's relationship with his base? My sense is that it's best understood through the examples of Reagan and Clinton.

Like Reagan, Obama forged a powerful emotional connection with his party's base before he was elected (in a way few presidents do). And as with Reagan, the leaders of his party's base had very specific policy demands -- demands that he failed in many instances to meet during his first two years. But also as with Reagan, the outcry from vocal members of his party's base that came with these policy failures didn't trickle down to rank-and-file base voters -- or at least it hasn't yet. They just like him too much.

The Clinton parallel has more to do with the current balance of power on Capitol Hill. Especially with his speech this week, Obama is positioning himself just as Clinton did in 1995 -- a man willing to compromise with the other side on some of its priorities but refusing to cross certain lines. Liberal commentators were often unhappy with Clinton in 1995 and 1996 -- especially when he signed welfare reform into law -- but rank-and-file Democrats were probably just thankful they had someone in the White House to stand up to Newt. 

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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