Wednesday, June 12, 2024

President Barack Obama rests briefly during an Oct. 14, 2009, visit to Bolivia, already beset by an unusual amount of political resistance domestically. (Photo: U.S. Embassy in Bolivia)

It’s a painful time to be a Democrat and progressive. As one, the other or both, you get to see the country pointlessly diverted toward the inflammatory issues of the Tea Party and Republicans and away from meaningful legislation, with Democrats in Congress seemingly helpless to prevent it and even tacking to the right themselves, taking positions to which they should be opposed. And the president’s popularity and approval ratings continue to slide, likely contributing to the loss of Democratic officeholders in November’s midterm elections.

The reasons why are being hopelessly obfuscated, and you can’t really cure the pain without looking at the cause.

Among those missing it utterly are Reuters and The Washington Post, returning this week to comparisons with President Ronald Reagan’s disapproval ratings, which have been made since Obama’s slide began. Here’s the Post’s Dan Balz, from Sunday:

For much of this year, Obama and his team have taken some solace from the fact that Reagan’s approval ratings were even lower at comparable points in his presidency. That is no longer the case. In the past week, Obama has hit a new low in his approval rating, according to Gallup’s daily tracking. It now stands at 42 percent, virtually identical to Reagan’s in August 1982. (Both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter dipped below 40 percent during their second year in office.)

To flesh out the poll results Balz and Reuters make analyses of the economy, following the lead of pollsters such as Gallup and in citing the recession as a cause with such single-minded elaborateness that one would think Obama were Hoover.

An exhibit for a January 2009 exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., juxtaposes Obama with President Ronald Reagan, a juxtaposition being made again in an attempt to provide context for a slide in Obama’s approval ratings. (Photo: Robin Sampson)

None of the analysis notes the equally single-minded intensity with which Republicans, Tea Party members and others on the fringe have injected into public discourse the suspicions Obama is a socialist Muslim terrorist who faked his birth certificate so he could be president — one out to “indoctrinate” children, form death panels and take away everyone’s guns. To read these analyses is not only to be introduced to a world in which Republicans aren’t doing literally anything to keep the economy in turmoil; it is to live in a world where the Tea Party doesn’t exist.

In the real world where 51.2 percent of the public disapprove of Obama’s work as president, does it make sense to not make even a glancing mention to a political environment in which, according to an Aug. 19 poll released by Pew, 18 percent of Americans believe the president is a Muslim, a figure doubled since March 2009? (A poll by Time magazine showed 24 percent of respondents believed Obama was a Muslim; 46 percent said Muslims were more likely than members of other religions to encourage violence against nonbelievers.)

The failure of pollsters to craft questions reflecting this reality, and the failure of some in the media to note these factors — instead giving and analyzing a single, brutally simplistic and monolithic “approval” rating — is irresponsible.

There is a difference between progressives who support the president but want more from him and people who are opposed absolutely to the president for reasons of party, race or other irrational measures. Kevin B. Gilnack, communications director for the Young Democrats of Massachusetts, knows it.

“Presidential job approval poll numbers are particularly deceiving when reported in the aggregate. These numbers are skewed by the extreme right wing, who will never be satisfied with a Democratic president, and report approval ratings between 7 percent and 20 percent,” Gilnack said Thursday. “What doesn’t make the papers is that among liberals and even conservative Democrats, the president’s job approval ranges from 61 percent to 86 percent, and among moderates — who make up much of the electorate — the president’s approval is still at 50 percent.”


Of course, there is often an element opposed to the existence of presidents rather than their policies. With George W. Bush, it was the belief the 2000 election had been “stolen” in Florida and elsewhere that led many to reject his first term in office as illegitimate. Anyone who thinks anti-Bush passion can be equated with that of the anti-Obama crowd, though, should remember the firestorm that arose over Obama’s televised Sept. 8 speech to schoolchildren. Many conservative parents nationwide kept them home.

Conservatives were “convinced the president is going to use the opportunity to press a partisan political agenda on impressionable young minds,” in the words of CNN before the speech. Or, in a description of Obama’s plan by Neal McCluskey, associate director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, as quoted by Fox News:

“It essentially tries to force kids to say the president and the presidency is inspiring, and that’s very problematic,” McCluskey said. “It’s very concerning that you would do that.”

That was the studied point of view of an associate director at a strangely well-regarded Washington, D.C., think tank.

The reality check is this: Despite the fact it was Bush who led the country into a war in Iraq on trumped-up justifications, literally killing thousands of U.S. young, it is unimaginable that there would be a panicked pulling of liberals’ children from schools so they wouldn’t hear him speak. Even while calling his presidency illegal and him impeachable on grounds he lied to start a war, the most extreme liberals and Democrats never displayed a hysteria over Bush that was so palpable and urgent that it was believed an hour’s worth of exposure to his televised image was enough to turn “impressionable young minds” to Manchurian mush.

But it is those extreme liberals and Democrats, and maybe others who are not extreme, but merely disappointed in the squandering of an electoral mandate, that are driving Obama’s poll figures down.

And our pollsters and top news sources can’t be bothered to point out the difference between that group and the fear mongering far right.

“Thanks to a very vocal Tea Party, whose voice has been amplified by right-wing radio and Fox News, pundits and pollsters often overlook the fact that President Obama is a moderate. Our president governs the whole country and gives both sides a seat at the table to get things done,” Gilnack said. “This reality certainly leaves some progressives, who would favor universal health care, the immediate withdrawal from Iraq, the immediate closing of Guantanamo and a much more aggressive liberal agenda, dissatisfied — especially given our majorities in both chambers.”

Even Avi Green, chairman of the Cambridge Democratic City Committee, played up the economy as a factor in Obama’s disapproval rating (noting the economy is “also really formed by things Bush did and even things Clinton and previous presidents have done that got us where we are today”) and played down the role of those rabidly and unreasonably opposed to the very idea of Obama.

“The disapproval number is a complicated number,” Green said. “But, that said, we still have a long time between now and November.”

Representatives of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and Blue Mass Group didn’t reply to requests for comment.