April 11, 2016
Note to the eventual GOP nominee: Candidate Obama is officially back. Republicans haven’t thought too much about the lame duck president lately. Beyond the trip to Cuba and Argentina and the nomination of Merrick Garland, the president is as overshadowed by Donald Trump as anyone else.
The Donald is the sun current political discourse orbits around, not the President of the United States. Yet another example of how 2016 is a bit different and what Trump has accomplished in the media.
Over the past several weeks Obama’s approval rating has ticked upwards. He’s now over 50% more often than not. For the past seven years or so, the president has maintained numbers in a relatively narrow band. He’s virtually never below 40% or above 55%.
This is unprecedented. Since Gallup began taking regular presidential approval readings seventy years ago, every other president had moments where they were more popular, and all but Eisenhower were also less popular.
A move from 45 to 52 percent was a blip for most presidents, but it’s a giant leap for Obama. That in and of itself isn’t an indicator for the fall, though Democrats would certainly prefer to have him at the upper edge of his range.
Perhaps (and quite likely) the bump is more a reaction to Trump than a sudden partial endorsement of the past 7+ years. I haven’t seen a survey yet with cross tabs to prove this, but I highly suspect all but a few Trump supporters are in the 45% of Americans who never say they approve of Obama.
Similarly, the 40% who always approve of the president are likely at the front of the anti-Trump line. For the 15% sliver of persuadables, when The Donald goes beyond the pale, the president looks a little better sometimes.
Logical, sure. But how does this matter if Ted Cruz is the nominee? While it’s possible he could have a similar effect on voters who are turned off by his conservatism, the bigger problem is the combination of Obama’s relatively decent ratings and his current tone.
The president doesn’t always sound real good. For someone given credit for his communication skills, he can sound as petulant, put upon, and generally condescending as the next ten people combined.
Whole stretches of his term were lost to the lecturer-in-chief, the guy who often scapegoated Republicans and built straw men to argue against. This wasn’t the youthful Senate candidate with the epic keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention.
It wasn’t the inspiring candidate who took the nomination from Hillary Clinton in the spring of 2008 or seemed more credible on the financial crisis than John McCain that fall.
After a brief inaugural honeymoon, by the time the 2009 stimulus bill was passed, the Obama a majority of Americans liked was gone. We haven’t seen him since. There was almost a sighting in the fall of 2012.
The president sounds better when running for president than being president and by October, he was doing better than he had in a few years. His best approval numbers since mid-2009 were right around and after the 2012 election.
But he was fixated on winning enough support to win. That meant rallying the troops while reaching out to just enough swing voters to ensure a Romney defeat. The Obama Coalition is/was large enough that mobilizing and turning them out is enough to get 270 electoral votes.
As a result, he wasn’t using his 2007/08 tone, and Romney voters didn’t pick up on any improvement at all. Once the small bandwagon effect of winning re-election wore off, his ratings were back to 2011 upside down levels.
Yesterday, the president appeared on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. The interview was pre-taped a few days back at the University of Chicago, where ex-instructor Obama had travelled to make his latest pitch for holding hearings and a vote on nominee Garland.
It was the best he’s sounded since ’08. He was careful, but not absurdly guarded. He didn’t spend much time blaming others for things his administration couldn’t do. He defended his pursuit of ISIL (Obama doesn’t use ISIS) without equivocation.
If you were seeing him for the first time, perhaps as a student might in 2066, looking back at old video, he was pretty likeable. Did I mention he was on Fox News? Chris Wallace isn’t exactly Sean Hannity, and Obama sat for a pre-Super Bowl interview with Bill O’Reilly a couple/few years ago, so this isn’t completely unprecedented.
However, it is the first time he’s done the Fox Sunday show since he was campaigning in 2008. This version of Obama is more likeable to the average American than Trump or Cruz, more presidential than John Kasich.
While Obama is not on the ballot, and Hillary Clinton is a significantly less effective politician, having a relaxed, engaged Obama, who is willing to appear on Fox, in her corner can’t hurt.
Interestingly, the panelists who discussed the interview didn’t pick up on the shift. Pundits and analysts often have an excess of background. They view things through a very fixed prism. As a result, they spent several minutes debating the propriety of Obama opining on Hillary’s emails.
The emails are an issue. The president oversees the Attorney General and by extension FBI Director. Many Americans wonder if they would indict Clinton if they uncover enough evidence to charge a regular person. Many think they already have.
So they talked about this. Understandable, but in doing so they missed how he sounded. The general election is not looking like a Republican cakewalk. Trump is heavily flawed. Cruz is a bit of a risk. Choosing Kasich, Paul Ryan, or someone else sounds neat, but can easily result in a fractured party.
The GOP will need every possible edge to elect a president. If Obama is slightly more popular than not, one edge is eliminated. If he’s turned back into an effective advocate, even worse.
We won’t know the old Obama is back until we hear this version a few more times. It’s not exactly 2008 Barack. This guy is older, wiser, greyer, and more measured. He’s very effective though, especially with moderate swing voters. While he can’t guarantee victory by himself, you can bet Hillary will want him in her corner this fall.
With the old Big Dog looking way past his prime, there’s another presidential surrogate warming up in the bullpen.