That’s the sound of swing voters swinging away from Obama

Although he remains overwhelmingly popular inside his own party, Obama is losing the independents.

Six months ago, the White House was weighing up an enviable problem: when do you get to start celebrating an economic recovery? The administration's chief economist at the time, Austan Goolsbee, had announced that the US had "turned a very serious corner". The Democratic strategist Paul Begala told me the "hard part" was to cheerlead the "nascent recovery" without appearing out of touch. I wrote a now-ludicrous story casting Barack Obama's dilem­ma as being when and how to declare victory.

That assumption was not limited to Democrats. The Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney warned a private Republican gathering a year ago this month that Obama "will do everything he can to get the economy going back again, and most likely - at least in my view - the economy will be coming back". Romney told Republicans that they would have to make the vaguer case that Obama "has not understood the nature of America".

Obama took office with what looked like enviable timing. Americans had chosen the candidate of change in bad times and, when recovery inevitably took hold, he would get the credit. That was the formula for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. In 1995, Clinton's aides had the same debate Obama's had this winter. They convinced Clinton to declare economic victory, and he helped turn favourable economic numbers into an optimistic national mood.

Numbers game

Economists and politicians will debate why the US recovery flagged this spring. Critics on the right say Obama should have cut regulations and taxes, not passed a new health-care plan. Keynesians to his left say - as they have said for two years - that his "stimulus" was simply too small. That question of blame will be central to next year's presidential campaign.

Reagan and Clinton were both years in to real booms when public perception caught up with economic reality. Obama's aides like to note that poll numbers for every president of modern times have dipped below 40 per cent - as Obama's did last month for the first time in Gallup's survey. But neither Reagan nor Clinton had ratings this bad this close to an election.

So, Obama's supporters and foes alike have begun to contemplate something that has no place in the triumphal arc on which he seemed set when elected: Obama could well lose next time. The president's odds of re-election on the political gambling site Intrade were exactly even last weekend. And the online traders aren't the only ones gambling.

The sense of weakness has begun to ripple outward. For instance, Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike are acting as if there won't be another Obama term, rebuffing the most powerful man in the world without evident regret.

Obama ran for office and won it as the candidate of history and change - and that candidate never loses. For that reason, it may have taken unusually long for his lengthening odds for 2012 to sink in. The White House still projects political confidence and leading Democrats continue to stand with Obama publicly, but privately they are beginning to worry.

Although he remains overwhelmingly popular inside his own party, it's the independents he's losing. An unexpectedly tight congressional election in liberal New York City is the latest bad sign: the voters, unhappy with Obama, are taking it out on his allies.

One recent weekend in New Hampshire, it was easy to see the path to an Obama defeat. He won the state by 10 percentage points in 2008. Now a series of statewide polls shows him trailing Romney - who has established his residence at a local vacation home. Romney may not survive the arrival of the staunchly conservative Rick Perry in the Republican primary, but Perry's entry into the race has, paradoxically, liberated the moderate former governor of Massachusetts to follow a more centrist path. At a sparsely attended Tea Party rally at a park in Concord, New Hampshire, Romney didn't let the words "Tea Party" pass his lips, and he hasn't offered the conservative grass roots any especially juicy red meat.

The next morning, Romney found his core supporters - more than 400 of them, an excellent turnout in the small-scale politics of the state - at a Manchester country club. They included people such as Susan Greeley. (Her husband is a distant cousin of the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who said: "Go west, young man.") She voted for Obama in 2008, but will vote for Romney in 2012 if he is the Republican nominee. He is, she said, "balanced" and "level-headed". "I want somebody who's in the centre who can pull people together from both sides," said another Romney backer, Bill Gordon. "We'll tear this country apart if we swing all the way the other way."

Centre ground

These are the voices of swing voters swinging away from the president. And they aren't people who hate Obama - indeed, surveys show that more than 70 per cent of Americans like him, though only about half that number think he's doing a good job. While Perry projects the Tea Party's loathing - the president, he said recently, appears to be an "abject liar" - Romney has calibrated his pitch to the centre, where elections are decided. He speaks of Obama in tones of pity, as a man out of his depth. The president, Romney said in the Republicans' California debate on 7 September, is "a nice guy" who "doesn't have a clue how to get this country working again".

That's a powerful pitch to suburban working women like Greeley, who make up a vital bloc of swing votes and who may not warm as quickly to Perry's more sharply conservative views. It's a symptom of Obama's plight that his shot at a second term may turn on the decisions of Republican primary voters - yet another development over which he has almost no control.

Ben Smith writes for politico.com

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

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Both Labour and the Tories have decided the 2017 election was a victory

As Westminster heads for the beach, at least one party is on course to look very foolish.

For the second time in seven years, Westminster heads for the beach after an election that no one won.

Jeremy Corbyn went into the election looking for “brilliant defeat” and he got it – a triumphant advance for him and his party, and with it, the Labour leadership for however long he wants it. Now most of his party seems to have remembered the brilliance, and forgotten the defeat.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a thriving cottage industry among the right-wing commentariat that is very keen to remind us all that Labour lost the election. This is certainly true, but it's also true that the party turned around a catastrophic picture as far as both the polls and local elections were concerned, and emerged with an electoral map that, unlike the grim vista Corbyn inherited from Ed Miliband, suggests that defeat for the Conservatives might be accomplished in ten months not ten years. So, yes, not a defeat of the Tories. But still a result with something to cheer for Labour.

The version of history being spun by the leader's office: that the 40 per cent of the vote Corbyn got in 2017 is part of the general unravelling of the English-speaking establishment that we saw with the votes for Donald Trump and Brexit, and that the tide of history is moving their way, isn't implausible. Certainly, I'm yet to meet anyone at Westminster willing to bet large sums of money that Corbyn won't end up in Downing Street these days.

Team Corbyn at least have something resembling a narrative. On the Conservative side, what looks to be happening now is that a large chunk of the right has told itself what went wrong is that they didn't talk about austerity enough, and that a bunch of 30- and 40-somethings decided to vote Labour because of something Corbyn said about tuition fee debt in the NME.

It's true that the new operation at Downing Street has proved that it can successfully drive the story in the right-wing press. Labour's flat-footed response to the non-story did expose vulnerabilities in the opposition's set-up. But while showing they can launch a rocket of any kind is a big step up for the post-Cameron Conservatives, it should worry that party that they don't seem to have noticed that this one didn't have a ballistic payload attached. Labour may be better prepared next time.

The contrast with 2010 is marked. As one minister pointed out to me recently, after that contest, centre-right think tanks bustled with activity and ideas. Conservative Party conference was full of suggestions about what they'd do if they won a majority. An extensive post-mortem into “what went wrong” – after an election in which the Tories gained 97 seats in one night, a post-war record for that party – occurred, both publicly and privately.

It might be that I'm not as fashionable as I was two years ago, but I was invited on to more panels discussing how the Tories could do better after the 2015 election, a contest they won, than I have in 2017, after an election they lost. Policy Exchange, that old generator of Cameron-era ideas, seems to be focused on foreign policy nowadays. As for the rest of the right-wing think tanks, they are almost entirely devoted to position papers telling us all that Brexit is going brilliantly.

It's not entirely fair to say that after 2010, the Conservatives recognised they'd lost and tried to fix it, while Labour decided the 2010 election had been a type of victory and tried to re-run it in 2015, but there is more than a grain of truth in that statement. At the moment, it looks as if both parties have decided that the 2017 election was a victory and that “once more, with feeling” is all they need to get over the line next time. At least one side is on course to look very foolish. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.