Leftward and Downward

President Obama's popularity has dropped like a stone over the past two years. If you listen to him, there is a very simple explanation for this: "For all the [economic] progress we've made, we're not there yet. And that means that people are frustrated and that means people are angry. And since I'm the president and Democrats have controlled the House and the Senate, it's understandable that people are saying, 'What have you done?'"

It is certainly true that the academic literature suggests that the state of the economy has a large impact on presidential approval. Yale economist Ray Fair, for example, has used a simple econometric model to successfully predict almost every post-war presidential election (his only miss was Bill Clinton in 1992). When the economy is bad, the incumbent president loses.

But the dramatic Obama change is something of a puzzle. The economy has climbed quite a ways over the time during which Obama's popularity has plummeted. For example, real GDP grew 3.3 percent in the second half of 2009, but the percentage of Americans who disapprove of the president, according to Gallup, increased from 33 percent to a high of 44 percent in late December.

The fact that Americans have decided Obama is too liberal is the most plausible story explaining the Republican surge and the Tea Party.

High unemployment certainly is on the minds of voters, but the nearby chart suggests there is something else at work. As Obama's disapproval has climbed, so has the percentage of Americans who think he is too liberal. In March 2009, only 36 percent of Americans thought that was true of the president. Today, the number has climbed to 46 percent.

It is probably bad for a politician if voters think he is "too" anything, and the fact that Americans have decided Obama is too liberal is the most plausible story explaining the Republican surge and the Tea Party. The fact that policies such as the nationalization of the automakers and the health-care bill place Obama far to the left of past presidents suggests that the American people are on to something.

The most interesting thing, however, is what comes next. If Obama truly believes his rhetoric, he can continue to push far-left policies, and his popularity will resurge when the economy inevitably turns around.

But if he thinks the surge in disapproval is explained by the perception that he is too liberal, then one can expect him to veer sharply toward the middle in a desperate act of self-preservation. If Republicans capture Congress, he might have a lot of help pursuing that strategy.

Kevin A. Hassett is a senior fellow and the director of economic policy studies.

Photo Credit:White House/Pete Souza

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About the Author

 

Kevin A.
Hassett
  • Kevin A. Hassett is the State Farm James Q. Wilson Chair in American Politics and Culture at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is also a resident scholar and AEI's director of economic policy studies.



    Before joining AEI, Hassett was a senior economist at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and an associate professor of economics and finance at Columbia (University) Business School. He served as a policy consultant to the US Department of the Treasury during the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.

    Hassett has also been an economic adviser to presidential candidates since 2000, when he became the chief economic adviser to Senator John McCain during that year's presidential primaries. He served as an economic adviser to the George W. Bush 2004 presidential campaign, a senior economic adviser to the McCain 2008 presidential campaign, and an economic adviser to the Mitt Romney 2012 presidential campaign.

    Hassett is the author or editor of many books, among them "Rethinking Competitiveness" (2012), "Toward Fundamental Tax Reform" (2005), "Bubbleology: The New Science of Stock Market Winners and Losers" (2002), and "Inequality and Tax Policy" (2001). He is also a columnist for National Review and has written for Bloomberg.

    Hassett frequently appears on Bloomberg radio and TV, CNBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, NPR, and "PBS NewsHour," among others. He is also often quoted by, and his opinion pieces have been published in, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

    Hassett has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.A. in economics from Swarthmore College.

  • Phone: 202-862-7157
    Email: khassett@aei.org
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