By Farooq A. Kperogi
The auguries aren’t looking pretty for President Barack Obama right now. Unless something really dramatic happens between now and early next year, he seems headed to be a one-term president.
His approval ratings have been in the toilet in the last few months, and they got even worse this week. According to a poll made public this week, only 42 percent of Americans approve of his job performance. That’s the absolute lowest water mark of his presidency. Plus, a whole 50 percent of Americans now thinks he doesn’t deserve a second term. And, more tellingly, a separate poll found that more Americans than ever before would choose ANY Republican over Obama in 2012. These are certainly disturbing foretokens for Obama, especially this late in his presidency.
For a contrast of contexts, consider this: When Obama came to office in January 2009 amid an unprecedentedly enormous flush of enthusiasm and hope, his approval rating stood at 68 percent. That’s an admirably historic high. The only parallel in America’s modern political history when a president had that much burgeoning popular support was in 1961 when John F. Kennedy was elected president. With his current approval rating in the low 40s, it means an astonishing 1 in 4 Americans has changed their perceptions of Obama.
These developments didn’t come to me as a surprise. I’d actually predicted in 2008 that once the novelty of a black president wears off and the reality of the institutional conservatism of the American presidency kicks in, people would be so disillusioned with Obama that they would want to kick him out of the White House before his time is up. As political scientists often remind us, the American presidency is an ossified institutional structure that gives only a limited legroom for the personal idiosyncrasies of their presidents to influence state policies.
Not surprisingly, in the issues that matter most to most ordinary Americans, it has been difficult to tell the Bush and Obama administrations apart. For instance, Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, close Guantanamo Bay, eliminate “special interests,” reverse Bush-era tax cuts for the rich, fix the healthcare system, rebound the economy, among several other lofty, high-mined campaign promises.
More than half-way into his tenure, Obama has escalated the wars he inherited, started a new one in Libya (which Americans overwhelmingly oppose), hasn’t eliminated special interests, has renewed the huge tax reprieve for the super-rich that he promised to rescind, and has made only cosmetic reforms to the healthcare system, which are, in fact, in danger of being rolled back by the Republican-majority House of Representatives. What is more, he hasn’t closed Guantanamo Bay, nor has he been able to rein in the ballooning federal deficit.
Add to this the fact that he has been held to a higher standard than his predecessors both because his flowery campaign rhetoric activated unrealistic expectations in Americans and because he is, well, a black man who has to go the extra-mile to “prove” that he is deserving of his position.
The cumulative effect of all this is that his once impregnable coalition that political analysts said was his biggest asset has crumbled. For example, traditionally apathetic young Americans who shook off their historic political insouciance because they were fired by Obama’s infectious zeal and soaring rhetoric have now become thoroughly disillusioned and have retired to their apolitical shells. These young Americans are unlikely to show up in the 2012 polls in as large numbers as they did for Obama in 2008. The discovery that the “change” and “hope” Obama so convincingly promised them were little more than convenient campaign slogans has been a damp squib, as the Brits would say.
Similarly, there has been a massive diminution in the emotional investment of black America in the Obama presidency. Not only has Obama’s presidency not made any qualitative change to the life of the average African-American, his policies have alienated many of them. His admittedly reluctant decision to bomb Libya, an African country, at the cost of $550 million a week, while ignoring a festering humanitarian disaster in Ivory Coast, another African country, has been a sore point for many African Americans who still nurse romantic sentiments of the “mother continent.” Many prominent black American leaders from Louis Farrakhan to Cynthia McKinney have launched severe philippics against Obama on account of this. In fact, a recent survey showed that 27 percent of African Americans now have less faith in Obama after the Libya attack than they had before it.
The auxiliary effect of the attenuation of the emotional investment of black America in the Obama presidency in electoral terms is that, although he may still win the majority of the black vote in 2012, not many black voters will be sufficiently stirred up about him to go out of their way to vote in as large numbers as they did in 2008. Democrats lost the mid-term congressional elections last year precisely because the coalition that brought Obama to power—young people, blacks, women, liberal white men, independents, etc—simply stayed home. And enthusiastic Republicans had a field day.
Finally, Obama’s decision to pursue a program of centrism, which should ordinarily be a plus, has rendered him a political orphan. He is reviled by rightwing zealots who think he isn’t conservative and hawkish enough and avoided, even ridiculed, by his core liberal constituency who think he has compromised too much to Republicans to deserve their sympathy. So he is neither here nor there politically.
These are clearly all danger signs for Obama’s second-term bid. But, for me, it is more than sufficient that someone of his unlikely background has conquered tall odds to emerge president of the world’s most powerful nation. It’s probably asking for too much to expect him to be elected a second term—certainly not when the economy is still in the tank and when old, hitherto suppressed primordial prejudices are bubbling to the surface as evidenced in the growing popularity of the racist Tea Party movement.