Ripon Forum
September 4, 2009

Even long honeymoons come to an end. Now six months into his term as President, Barack Obama’s long-enjoyed popularity is starting to show signs of wear. Recent polls show his approval rating slowly declining, and dipping below 50% for the first time in his presidency on July 24th. The drop is particularly pronounced among unaffiliated voters, with whom Obama now has only a 37% approval rating.
This trend line raises several questions: what has Obama done to precipitate this decline? And what opportunity does that open for Republicans?

Obama’s declining popularity is not unexpected, no one can maintain the kind of high expectations that accompanied his inauguration, but the decline is also reflective of his abandonment of several key campaign promises. Throughout the 2008 election season then Senator Obama spoke eloquently of a new era of politics that would put aside hyper-partisanship and make government work for the people. One practical step he promised was to post on the Internet the text of every bill that came to his desk at least five days before he would sign it, thus increasing transparency of government. Unfortunately, that pledge has been honored primarily in the breach. In fact, the very first bill he signed was never posted online and a number of other important bills that he has signed since were not posted for at least five days. Honoring that pledge may strike some as more symbolic than substantive, but in politics symbolism often sends a very powerful message.

Further, despite his promises of bipartisanship, he has shown a willingness to ram through critical pieces of legislation on nearly straight party-line votes. I was discouraged to read last week that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Advisor David Axelrod both said that passing the health care reform bill on a strictly partisan basis in the next several weeks was more important than taking the time to build a bipartisan solution. For more than 60 years, presidents from both parties have been trying to pass meaningful health care reform. There is no doubt we need it now more than ever. But that does not mean we should be rushing through a bill that carries a price tag of $1.5 trillion over the next ten years and that could fundamentally alter more than 15 percent of our entire national economy. It seems that the senate is having the same thoughts and doubt that they can get something done on healthcare before the August recess.

“We’re looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington,” Obama said during the campaign. Americans did not vote for Barack Obama’s politics; as much as they voted for a man who inspired them to believe that “yes, we can” change Washington. Now, as he breaks from the ideals he espoused, the centrist voters that helped elect him president are becoming disillusioned.

Recent poll numbers are particularly noteworthy because as I have said many times before, centrists are the key to victory in this country. The Times of London noted after the 2008 election that, “For all the transformation in US politics wrought by the past four years, Americans themselves do not seem to have undergone any great ideological conversion.” Just as in 2004, 22% of voters in 2008 identified themselves as liberal (it was 21% in 2004), 45% as moderate and 34% as conservative. This is still a center-right nation, and I am sure the president views his declining popularity among that group with great concern. 

The corollary is the imperative that we as Republicans rebuild our support among a constituency that is crucial to the GOP’s future electoral success. To reach centrists, we need to return to being the party of ideas. We cannot afford to simply discredit the Democrats’ programs; we have to propose solutions and show why ours are the right ones for America. 

When the House of Representatives recently passed the Obama Administration’s cap-and-trade bill that was fraught with problems, Republican attacks on the bill did not focus on specific deficiencies – they focused on the very concept of cap-and-trade, calling it “cap-and-tax.” The irony here is that the cap-and-trade concept was first used almost 20 years ago, under a Republican president, to successfully reduce acid rain. And although I listened very carefully for a constructive alternative from the Republicans, I never heard one.

Television ads about health care reform are one way for the GOP to present some positive proposals. Such ads will of course contain a negative portrayal of Obama’s plan – and utilizing the Congressional Budget Office evaluation of it, which demonstrated that it will cost us far more than it will save, is certainly fair game. But then we have to show what our alternative plan would be.

Finally, if the Republican Party is to court the center-right where the majority of Americans find themselves, we have to reexamine the issues on which we focus. With the future of health care hanging in the balance, Republicans in the Senate this week decided to focus on a concealed weapons law. Instead of focusing on issues that appeal to a minority of voters, we should focus on the core conservative principles of limited government that have served our Party well and made our country great. We need to earn back the voter’s trust and that takes positive actions as well as thoughtful criticism.