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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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