Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Obama’s Growing Ideology Problem

A lot about our presidential politics is explained by the following uncontested facts: more likely voters identify themselves as “conservative” than as “Republican”; and more likely voters identify themselves as “Democrats” than as “liberals.” 

That goes a long way toward explaining why ideologically flexible Republicans like Mitt Romney suddenly start impersonating doctrinaire conservatives when they decide to run for president. And it explains why doctrinaire liberals from Michael Dukakis to Barack Obama take to calling themselves “pragmatists” and try to make every presidential election more about “competence” than about “ideology.”  Generally speaking, Republican presidential nominees get elected by making conservatism sound like common sense to independent voters. Democrats win as ideological counterpunchers, counting on their liberal base to be a silent partner in a campaign to colonize the center of the political spectrum.

A large part of the story about the last presidential election is how adroitly Obama executed the core Democratic strategy even while he was pushing the most ambitiously liberal agenda from a Democratic presidential nominee since 1972. His health care reform pitch was a case in point. On the campaign trail he hammered home the message that we could secure uninsured Americans health insurance without disturbing the arrangements better off people had already made with their employers and private insurers (“If you like the insurance you’ve got you can keep it”) or raising the taxes on more than 2% of American families. Enough independent voters believed Obama when he said such things to enable him to win the election by a comfortable margin. By his own admission, the shellacking Democrats took last November is explained, in large part, by the fact that a lot of independent voters started thinking of him as just another "tax-and-spend liberal."

So Democrats can’t be heartened by polling results like these from Rasmussen that suggest that, among likely voters in general and independent voters in particular, Obama's ideological profile is coming into focus:
“The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 54% of Likely U.S. Voters think Obama is more ideologically liberal than they are, while only 13% view him as more conservative. Twenty-four percent (24%) say their political views are about the same as the president's. . . .

"Forty-five percent (45%) of Democratic voters, however, say their views are about the same as the president’s, although that ties the lowest finding to date. The number of Democrats who felt this way peaked at 60% in late February. Twenty-four percent (24%) of Democrats say the president is more conservative than they are, while 22% think he is more liberal. . . .

“An overwhelming number (84%) of Republicans and 57% of voters not affiliated with either major political party feel the president is more liberal than they are. Twenty percent (20%) of unaffiliated voters share about the same ideological views as the president.”
If past is prologue, Obama's going to have to find a way to blur the ideological edges of his public image. He’s counting on ideological overreach on the part of congressional Republicans to help him do it.  But these numbers suggest how much work Obama and politically suicidal Republicans will have to do to secure his reelection.

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