Get ready. Congress comes back into session after Labor Day, and the Fall campaign for mid-term elections is about to get noisy.
But people are sharper this time around. Soft slogans that worked in ‘08 have turned into blame in 2010, and blame doesn’t work as well as politicians think. Remember the promise of accountability?
The Barack Obama that most Hoosiers remember voting for can still be found on YouTube. He stands before a cheering Elkhart high school gymnasium in August 2008, tireless, aspirational, promising a new America of jobs and hope. “We can choose another future,” says the newcomer with the funny name. “So I ask you to join me.”
Today that view of Obama is harder to find in Indiana.
How times have changed.
In a recent television ad, an unflattering photo of Obama and Pelosi flashes while [Democratic Congressman Joe] Donnelly condemns “the Washington crowd.” This is basically a Democratic campaign slogan now: Don’t blame me for Obama and Pelosi. “I’m not one of them,” Donnelly told me when I caught up with him. “I’m one of us.”
This shift in perception — from Obama as political savior to Obama as creature of Washington — can be seen elsewhere. When Obama arrived in office in January ‘09, his Gallup approval rating stood at 68%, a high for a newly elected leader not seen since John Kennedy in 1961. Today Obama’s job approval has been hovering in the mid-40s, which means that at least 1 in 4 Americans has changed his or her mind. The plunge has been particularly dramatic among independents, whites and those under age 30. With midterm elections just nine weeks off, instead of the generational transformation some Democrats predicted after 2008, the President’s party teeters on the brink of a broad setback in November, including the possible loss of both houses of Congress. By a 10-point margin, people say they will vote for Republicans over Democrats in Congress, the largest such gap ever recorded by Gallup.
This is more than the usual behavior of a disgruntled electorate. The precipitous fall from favor of a president elected on symbol over substance has even been acknowledged by the White House.
In more confiding moments, aides admit that the peak of Obama’s popularity may have been inflated, a fleeting result of elation at the prospect of change and national pride in electing the first African-American President. As one White House aide puts it, “It was sort of fake.”
Sort of? Small comfort there.
But while these explanations may be valid, they are also incomplete. A sense of disappointment, bordering on betrayal, has been growing across the country, especially in moderate states like Indiana, where people now openly say they didn’t quite understand the President they voted for in 2008. The fear most often expressed is that Obama is taking the country somewhere they don’t want to go. “We bought what he said. He offered a lot of hope,” says Fred Ferlic, an Obama voter and orthopedic surgeon in South Bend who has since soured on his choice. Ferlic talks about the messy compromises in health care reform, his sense of an inhospitable business climate and the growth of government spending under Obama. “He’s trying to Europeanize us, and the Europeans are going the other way,” continues Ferlic, a former Democratic campaign donor who plans to vote Republican this year. “The entire American spirit is being broken.”
Time for truth? Why wasn’t this magazine asking the hard questions in the presidential campaign that would have helped voters clarify what the candidates stood for and what qualified them for the most powerful job in the world? Where were the leaders, in media and government, before now? In fact, where’s the leadership now?
At an event the other day in Chicago, a man confided to me that he was a lifelong liberal Democrat, proudly and ecstatically caught up in the Grant Park frenzy when Obama delivered his victory speech in ‘08, convinced that he would usher in a new era of utopia. And now, he said with great disappointment, some sadness and definite remorse, he knew it was all an illusion. “I would never vote for him now,” he admitted, and I knew this was difficult for the man to admit. “In fact, right now, I don’t care what party the candidates belong to, I’m just looking for good leaders.”