President Obama Is Losing His Greatest Asset: Likeability

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official
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Obama’s likeability, his last and greatest political asset, appears to be vanishing. If so, then he is entering uncharted and dangerous presidential territory. For five and half years in office, Obama’s real strength has been his personal appeal to the public – despite their disagreement over his policies.

Obama is negatively perceived on almost every major issue, in almost every national poll. Starting with his signature accomplishment, health care – then the economy, the budget, foreign policy, and now immigration – the list lengthens, the holes get deeper, and the duration of dissatisfaction grows longer.

This is not easy. America is very segmented – regionally, politically, ideologically, and demographically – each group with different views on different issues. To get to a majority opinion on any topic, you must get a lot of dissimilar people to agree. Obama has indeed brought America together, just not in the way he envisioned.

Yet despite a majority of Americans having viewed Obama negatively on many important issues for some time, Americans have not viewed Obama himself negatively. They have willingly – almost eagerly, wanting him to succeed – separated the man from his means, until now. Now, the disconnect is reconnecting.

A nationwide CNN/ORC poll (1,012 adults, MOE +/-3 percent, released 7/23) showed Obama’s appeal erode among Americans. When asked if Obama “is a strong and decisive leader,” just 48 percent said this applies, while 52 percent said it did not. Asked if Obama “generally agrees with you on issues you care about,” the split was 43 percent agreeing and 56 percent disagreeing.

Can Obama “manage the government effectively?” Just 42 percent agreed, 57 percent disagreed. Asked whether Obama “shares your values,” just 46 percent said he did – 53 percent said he did not. Is he “sincere in what he says?” The public split evenly 49 to 49 percent on whether he did. Only when asked whether he “cares about people like you,” did Obama manage a narrow 51-48 positive rating.

Bad as these are, compared to Obama’s past record they are even worse. On four of these six questions, Obama scored his lowest CNN/ORC results during his presidency. In two – whether he was a strong leader and his ability to manage government effectively – he scored his second lowest ratings of this poll’s results.

Likeability is crucial for any president. In our age of over-exposure, a president dominates attention like nothing else in our society. He is the biggest news story in American for his time in office. Few television shows hold our attention so long.

He is not simply a de facto houseguest, he is a housemate – for four to eight years. Because of his pervasive presence, and the inevitable need to take unpopular policy positions, he must be someone with whom we are comfortable. He needs us to have a reason to overlook disagreements, to give him the benefit of the doubt occasionally.

When a presidency devolves into a depersonalized policy tote board, the president loses. A president truly needs us to like him.

Likeability is especially important for this president, but by now it is clear Obama is polarizing. He has distinct policies preferences that often strongly alienate a significant amount, if not a majority, of the electorate. And this is not just the case on a single issue, but across many.

Obama has been buoyed more than most, because he has needed it more than most, by his likeability. Even as policy failures have collectively increased and individually deepened, his likeability has helped salvage his popularity. That now appears to be faltering.

Like a military retreat, a political retreat can easily turn into a rout. The public quickly goes from giving a politician the benefit of the doubt to doubting his benefit. Suddenly he finds us looking through a negative filter, with any ambiguity going against him. We even begin to question the positive, affixing its cause to factors other than him.

Unlike relationships, we cannot distance ourselves from a president. We cannot take a break and give the relationship time to repair. We are stuck with him – and he with us – through his term.

It is unclear if Obama can reclaim his likeability. Few past presidents have. The crises that have sapped popularity are usually too relentless to give a president the time needed to regain the electorate. Instead, the situation usually worsens. Things can go from bad to worse quickly and seemingly uncontrollably.

Right now, things are unquestionably bad for Obama and have gotten worse. Without his likeability, on which he has been overly dependent, they could quickly go to “worst” – and continue right on going.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.