Voters accept the “New Normal”

On Sunday, CNN released a poll in which 51 percent of the respondents “say things are going pretty badly or very badly.”  The numbers are better than they were during the election, so President Obama enjoys a bit of inaugural fresh-start New Years’ optimism… and yet he still can’t get to 50 percent on the “right track” number.

The poll gave Obama a 53/43 approval rating, which is considerably better than the 49 percent average approval rating Gallup computed for his first term in office.  That gives him the third lowest approval rating for any post-World War 2 president, ahead of only Ford and Carter, neither of whom won re-election.  But others who did win re-election had fairly low approval averages too, including Reagan and Clinton.  What really matters, as all the political pros will tell you, is that enough voters demonstrate minimal approval by either voting for the incumbent President, while others contain their disapproval enough to stay home.

That’s consistent with the Obama campaign narrative, which combined savage attacks on his opponent’s character with two excuses for Obama’s first-term failures: it was all George Bush’s fault, and the Obama presidency was still a work in progress.  Nothing about these poll results contradicts that narrative.

But then we’ve got The Hill’s poll from Friday, which provided a more detailed – and somber – look at the mood of the American voter, on the eve of Obama’s second inauguration:

The president was reelected for another four years by a relatively comfortable margin, but 39 percent of likely voters say his first four years were worse than expected, compared to just 18 percent who say he exceeded expectations. Forty-one percent of those polled said his first term went as expected.

The president assumed office in the midst of one of the worst financial meltdowns in U.S. history, and those polled are still feeling the ensuing recession’s impact four years later. On the economic front, 42 percent say they are worse off now than when Obama first took office, compared to 26 percent who say they are better off.

Respondents are not significantly more optimistic about the next four years, either.

Sixty percent say they do not expect to make major economic strides during Obama’s second term, compared to just 38 percent who expect to be better off in 2016.

The highlighted passage appears to be a helpful “nothing is really Barry’s fault” editorial insertion, not a poll result.  It doesn’t seem to mesh very well with the following sentence, which reveals that an astonishing 42 percent of voters say they’re worse off than when Obama took office, compared to only 26 percent who feel their situation has improved.  But the poll went on to determine that voters were much more likely to blame Congress than Obama for these circumstances – laughable for anyone who understands how the government actually works, but that obviously doesn’t include the fabled “low-information voter.”

What you’ve got here is a combination of highly successful Obama campaign messaging, media bias, and a troubling acceptance of the “New Normal” by the electorate.  The first factor is easy enough to appreciate.  The subject of the 2012 election was very effectively changed from Obama’s record, something Mitt Romney’s campaign team probably didn’t believe was possible – a failure of imagination that cost them dearly.

The second point is also clear enough.  Voters generally dislike Congress in perpetuity.  It typically lacks effective, charismatic spokesmen; “Contract With America” moments of clarity and unity are rare.  And of course, for any given voter, roughly half the seats in Congress are filled with ideological adversaries, along with those who represent districts far removed from the voter’s personal experience.  The very nature of Congress is to deliberate legislation, which means arresting and executing a great deal of it.  Congress will never be all that popular as an institution, giving every President something to run against… even when his Party controlled both houses for the first half of his term, as was the case with Obama.

But try to imagine President John McCain and Vice President Sarah Palin running against a Democrat House in 2012.  Think the media would let them get away with blaming all their troubles on intransigent Democrats?  Would the media have politely forgotten to remind voters that Republicans had controlled the entire Congress for the first two years of their terms?  On the contrary, you would have been reminded of that every single day during the campaign, particularly if they tried campaigning on any issue they failed to push during those first two years of complete political dominance.  And the low-information voter would have been a lot more familiar with the belligerent, intransigent, crackpot statements of the Republican Senate Majority Leader, assuming the Republicans could find a pot as cracked as Harry Reid in their cupboard.  Imagine the reaction if hypothetical Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had grabbed headlines by claiming a source he refused to identify accused President McCain’s Democrat opponent of evading taxes for ten years.

The exhaustion implied by voter acceptance of the New Normal is most troubling.  The bar has been set so low for Barack Obama that voters didn’t believe Mitt Romney when he said it should be higher.  Permanent double-digit real unemployment – it would still be well over 10 percent, going into Obama’s fifth year, if the workforce was as big as the one George Bush left him – has been accepted as a fact of life.  The American people, as a whole, emit no compelling sense that such a weak “recovery” is thoroughly unacceptable, not even after a trillion wasted “stimulus” dollars.

Rising taxes, growth below every single target provided by President Obama during his early years in office, no sense that Obama believes he made any mistakes, or plans to do anything differently… it’s clear enough from these polls that voters are not terribly deluded about the state of affairs, but they couldn’t rouse themselves to demand anything better.  All the media bias in the world wouldn’t have kept them watching Obama’s 2012 campaign when it degenerated into a Muppet show, if they had been profoundly unhappy with the “wrong track” they seem themselves rumbling down… or if Romney’s campaign had been able to persuade them it was possible to switch tracks.

An electorate willing to be satisfied with less is not fertile political ground for the champion of free-market capitalism, which is animated by the ambition of free people.  Instead, 2013 begins with much talk about the ambitions of the political class, and its plans to make that melancholy private sector even smaller.