Opinion

Obama’s tough year in public opinion

Kellyanne Conway Contributor

What a difference a year makes.

Tuesday’s historic election of Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley to the represent the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts makes Democrats and President Obama 0-for-3 in statewide contests since his election. Obama carried all of three of those states by more than 50 points combined.

It is accepted wisdom that President Obama’s approval rating has tumbled during his first year in office. What is dramatic, however, is the width and depth of the disenchantment. According to Gallup, the president’s approval rating has dropped among 39 out of 40 demographic and geographic groups studied. Both genders and every age, income, education, region, marital status, ideology and party affiliation measure view him less favorably than they did last January.

This naturally includes constituencies that helped deliver victory to Mr. Obama in 2008. Among women, his approvals have dipped 15 percentage points; young people, 17 points; and the big story, his base among Independents—52% of whom voted for him—has evaporated (down 17 points).

What’s more, the public has soured on Mr. Obama’s handling of specific issues, both foreign and domestic. On every economic measure—taxes, budget deficit, creating jobs, general economy, and that bête noir, health care, which is viewed through an economic prism—the president has upside down approval ratings, meaning more people are negative than positive about his performance.

Perhaps the greatest indictment of the president’s challenges is revealed in the “attributes testing” performed routinely by pollsters. According to CNN data, the number of Americans who think Mr. Obama “inspires confidence” is down 12 percentage points since he took office; “has a clear plan for the solving this country’s problem”—down 19 points; “is a strong and decisive leader”—down 18 points; “will united the country and not divide it”—down 26 points since December 2008. Executive orders, 30-plus czars, and one-party, closed-door dealings on health care can have that effect.

Promises of post-partisanship have not materialized, but the president has managed to cobble tri-partisan agreement on one simple thing: his first year has been a disappointment. Even liberal talking head Rachel Maddow has observed, “Change we can believe in, as long as we pay attention to the disappointing asterisk on the word ‘change.’”

In a revealing question that shows the deflation of expectation that the Marist Poll found last month that 42% of Americans surveyed said that President Obama had “fallen below their expectations” in his first year in office. Even among self-identified Democrats, just 17% said Mr. Obama had “exceeded expectations.”

The president, of course, remains personally popular and has time to recover. But that will require an understanding of what his election mandated—and what it did not. He won on a message of “Change you can believe in,” but the first year is more “Revolution you must pay for.” Compelling messengers win elections; compelling messages win public support for governance. Excesses on spending helped the Republicans lose their majority in 2006 and continue to bleed seats in 2008. That same type of overreach and lurch leftward has cost the President precious political capital in 2009 and his party stinging defeats on Capitol Hill and at the ballot box.

Majorities of Americans oppose the bailouts of Detroit, Wall Street, mortgages, and believe the stimulus has not worked. A 10%-plus unemployment figure nationwide confirms their opinions. Eye-popping numbers reject taxpayer-funded abortions at home (71%) (a staple of the health care reform currently being considered) and abroad (89%), (the law of almost a year, when the Mexico City policy was reversed by executive order).

It is also a bit too early for Republicans to celebrate. There is plenty of time to squander the increasing support among Iindependents, women, seniors and other reliable voting constituencies who are embracing conservative solutions. A few items for the GOP to-do list include:

• Embrace Technology: Democrats have long owned this space. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) famously said “a Google” (singular) and President George W. Bush “the Internets” (plural). Political technophobes afraid to get with the ’80s should take a page from the Obama ’08 campaign. Downloading the “Obama for America” iPhone app allowed the user to make get-out-the-vote calls, link to videos and photos of the candidate, and be connected to the nearest campaign headquarters via GPS technology. People literally felt connected to the man, the movement, the mission. Technology is the native tongue for many Americans, and for nearly all under a certain age. Learn to speak it fluently.

• Welcome Competitive Primaries: It is confounding that the pro-free-market, pro-competition party quells those principles in some of their own political primaries. The GOP Committees have come under fire for handpicking nominees and attempting to bulldoze the field of other aspirants, especially in open seat races. This usually comes from three simple, albeit non-provable words, “He Can Win,” which is based on some combination of name identification, money and collective repetition by the political cognescenti. Ask President Rudy Guiliani or President Hillary Clinton the ultimate value of the early claim, “You Can Win.” You raise easy money and play it safe, ensconced by consultants who keep repeating it to each other and to pundits who keep repeating it to each other. Voters do not ask, “Who can win?” but instead “Who can govern?”

• Offer Solutions, Even When Blocking the Bad Stuff: Former Speaker of the House and leading visionary Newt Gingrich, who led the Republicans to victory in 1994 with a specific set of ideas and solutions, has called upon his party to fashion a 2010 version of the Contract with America that makes the GOP “the alternative party, not the opposition party.” This, coupled with policy prescriptions put forth on www.GOP.gov offer a good start.

• Respond to Demographic Realities: Republicans cannot wait for the young to become old and the single to get married to find new voters. The McCain-Palin ticket won married women aged 18-29 by 12 points in 2008, while Obama-Biden won 18-29-year-old single women by 55 points. Unmarried America is exploding, with the age of first time marriage for both genders increasing, and the number of women especially in their 20s, 30s and 40s saying “I Might” or “I Probably Won’t “ keeping pace with those who say “I Do.” If women are not waiting for “me” to become “we” to avail themselves of the accoutrements of an ownership society, why are Republicans waiting?

Understanding and offering ideas to the growing Hispanic and Asian populations must include something beyond showing ads in two languages. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of Hispanic-owned businesses increased by 31% and Asian-owned by 24%; the national average was 10%. Pro-entrepreneurship policies and a connection on moral issues could appeal to many minority voters, who tend to be more conservative on such matters.

• Find New Customers: Politics is not toothpaste—not everyone is a consumer and certainly not everyone likes the product. If Crest wanted to find new customers, it would need to understand what motivates the users of Colgate, Aqua-Fresh and other brands. In politics, many voters are brand loyal but not brand monogamous. The independents who now decide most elections are neither. And another portion rejects the “product” altogether. Those folks must be engaged, not ignored.

Kellyanne Conway is President and CEO of the polling company, inc./WomanTrend and a Republican strategist.