It's easy to be confused about this year's presidential election.
Throughout the latter part of 2011, President Obama was faring badly in opinion polls. Unemployment remained stubbornly high and a majority did not approve of his job performance. The talk was that almost any Republican could beat Obama. But then, as we headed into a new year, Obama's fortunes appeared to change. Unemployment moved in a favorable direction (if only incrementally so), and the president's approval rating improved to over 50 percent. Most of all, Obama benefited in comparison to the spectacle of the Republican primary season, where no candidate appeared remotely capable. Talk shifted to Obama walking the election.
And yet, here we are in late April, and Obama is no longer flying high. A New York Times/CBS News poll published last week found that Obama and Mitt Romney are tied at 46 percent each. Six in ten say the economy is on the wrong track. How did that happen? Some point to the fact that the economy appears to have stalled again. Some note that, now that Romney has seen off other Republican challengers, he is no longer under fire from his own side and has begun to consolidate support. And some put it down to the simple fact that it is early, with the election still more than six months away.
But the volatility is remarkable, and revealing. It shows, as I noted before, that Obama's support was in fact softer than it appeared when he was up in the polls. The volatility is due to the lack of strong attachments: the largest segment of voters is not affiliated to any party. They are, in many cases, alienated from both parties. In such circumstances, people say they will vote for the candidate they hate least. With the Republican primary circus over, attention has shifted back to Obama, and many do not like what they see. When you consider how awful a candidate Romney has been these past six months, for Obama to find himself in a tie with him should be a total embarrassment.
Supporters of Obama tend to blame the economic environment. Unemployment has started to rise again, and so they say, of course the president will suffer. Furthermore, they say, those nasty Republicans have blocked his moves the past few years, and, as Paul Krugman noted in his New York Times op-ed yesterday, they are unfairly blaming Obama for the crisis that began under President George W. Bush.
But that outlook just portrays Obama as a hapless victim of circumstances. It's true that the slow economic recovery reflects the impact of a crisis that began before Obama entered the White House, but people expect the president to take action to do something about the situation. When you break down questions in polls on various topics, Obama fares better than Romney on all topics except one - the economy, which happens to be voters' top priority. His lack of support is an indication that voters do not think he has done enough to set the economy in the right direction. Moreover, complaints about Republican opposition do not convince: opposition comes with the office, and highlighting the issue just reminds people of the lack of success.
In recent months, it is clear that Obama has sought to "own" the incipient recovery, and claim that it is the result of his policies. As I noted earlier, that passive approach is dangerous for him, given how unsteady economic growth has been. And sure enough, if Obama claims the economy is his, then as night becomes day he will suffer if the economy stalls, as it has now.
And what does Obama offer? The past few weeks his big idea has been the "Buffett rule": named after billionaire Warren Buffett, the "rule" would call for a minimum of 30 percent tax on earnings above $1 million (today many millionaires can pay less than 30 percent tax on income due to deductions and capital gains treatment). He and his team think they are on to a vote winner, because polls find that most support such a tax and it reinforces their message of "fairness". But this is a misreading: yes, people are willing for the government to raise taxes on other people, but it is a very low priority for them. What the Obama team misses is that, with a lack of any other answers for the economy, presenting the Buffett Rule is going to lead most people to conclude: is that all you've got? Because it is clear that raising taxes on the rich will do nothing to improve economic prospects.
Rather than blame Republicans, Obama and the Democrats ought to get their own house in order. Enthusiasm for Obama is sorely lacking. As Walter Russell Mead highlights in his piece "Millenials turning away from Obama," the 18-24 age group was overwhelming behind Obama in 2008; today they are disaffected and only slightly in favor of Obama over Romney. Obama can't blame Republicans for the fact that college students can't be bothered to campaign for him, as they did four years ago.
Of course, it is still early days, and the campaign has not really got going. But if the election were held today, I would say that a victory for either Obama or Romney would not be a strong endorsement because the enthusiasm just isn't there. Nor would Obama or Romney have a mandate for change, because neither are offering anything of substance. It remains to be seen whether that will change between now and November.