JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 4, 2010
John Judis has a column arguing that that President Obama's political stem from his failure to connect to the white working class:
Here is a fact: Barack Obama has trouble generating enthusiasm among white working class voters. That’s not because they are white. He would have had trouble winning support among black working class voters if they had been unable to identify with him because he was black. He has trouble with working class voters because he appears to them as coming from a different world, a different realm of experience, a different class, if you like.
John devotes the rest of his column to showing that Obama is not working class, rather than attempting to demonstrate that this fact is pertinent to Obama's political struggles. John's argument presupposes that, if Obama could relate better to white working class Americans, he would have higher approval ratings. I have a hard time believing that any president who was one year into his term and facing double-digit unemployment would have approval ratings much higher than fifty percent.
Of course, this can't be proven either way, because we can't conduct an experiment where, say, Joe Biden is elected president in 2008. But the available evidence seems to suggest a healthy skepticism about John's conclusion. John is arguing that there are factors other than Obama's actions that help account for him not being as popular as John thinks he should be. If that were the case, we might expect that that the public personal estimation for Obama, or their belief that he cares about people like them, might trail below his overall job performance. But just the opposite is the case. Almost 90% percent of Americans say they like Obama. Two-thirds say that "he cares about people like you." Those figures suggest that Obama's ability to connect with the public is more of an asset than a liability.
Last fall, John wrote about what he called "the lockstep relationship between Obama's popularity and the state of the economy":
Are these signs of voter discontent the result of tactical errors by Obama? Would the numbers look different if he had given his impassioned defense of national health care in February, or if he and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had been tougher on the banks earlier this year? Perhaps these tactics would have led to a temporary bounce in Obama's popularity, but they would not have changed its overall trajectory. That's because Obama's fortunes are being driven mainly by one thing: not health care, but the economy.
I still find that persuasive. Clearly, presidential performance has some impact on approval ratings. But I don't even buy the premise that Obama is less popular than one might expect given economic circumstances. Given ten percent unemployment, a fifty percent approval rating seems pretty lofty.