Last week was the worst media week for President Obama since he entered politics. The State Department’s politicization of the Benghazi talking points, the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department’s heavy-handed way of dealing with journalists has brought the president criticism from all corners of the mainstream media. On MSNBC’s “Hardball,” host Chris Matthews compared the administration to “a ship with the engine off.”
But despite the president’s lousy week, his poll numbers haven’t fallen. In fact, CNN’s latest survey has the president’s approval rating hovering just above 50%, up two points since April and up six since March.
As always, Obama’s base is made up largely of young people and minorities. His approval rating is at an astounding 78% among non-whites and a very robust 63% among 18-34 year olds.
CNN found that 48% of 18-to-34-year-old respondents think the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups is acceptable. Among non-white voters, 37% found the IRS’s actions acceptable. In contrast, only 34% of self-identified liberals found those actions acceptable. Even President Obama condemned the agency’s actions. So did liberal pundits, Democratic senators, and Jon Stewart. The ridicule was as close to a universal denouncement as is seen in modern politics — and yet the young and non-white were not moved.
The same pattern held when CNN asked young Americans and minorities about the Justice Department’s seizure of the Associated Press’ phone records. Fifty-seven percent of 18-34 year olds and 60% of minorities said they approved of the DOJ’s actions. Only 46% of self-described liberals said they approved.
Republicans are partly to blame for this. Destroying a president’s approval rating is like tipping over a Coke machine: You need a few good shoves, each building on the momentum of the last, until you can finally knock it down. For the Bush administration, the tipping point was Hurricane Katrina, an event that made the country question that administration’s competence.
But rather than delivering a consistent, salient message, Republicans have tried to turn each mistake the Obama administration makes into a game-stopping, impeachable offense.
Republicans need to do better with young people and minorities, but they clearly have their work cut out for them. The GOP shouldn’t aim to convince these people that Obama is an evil socialist; instead, Republicans should make the more subtle, believable argument that Obama isn’t looking out for their best interests and that his administration’s incompetence threatens them. That argument just might work.
Brandon J. Gaylord, the editor-in-chief of HorseRacePolitics.com, is a graduate of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. Brandon got his start in politics as an intern in Vice President Richard Cheney’s Office of Political Affairs.