President Obama’s approval rating is above water, but only barely. He’s two or three points below 50 percent in the Real Clear Politics average, with those disapproving a couple of points behind — hardly an impressive reading, but after the turmoil of the last two years you wouldn’t have thought it possible.
This president still exerts an undeniable tug on the public. But dig a bit deeper and the picture, along with Obama’s chances for re-election, looks much more complicated.
Earlier this month, a Gallup poll found that only 27 percent approved of Obama’s handling of the deficit.
More than 60 percent think the country’s on the wrong track.
Columnist Sean Trende, a number-cruncher at Real Clear Politics, reminds us that a president’s approval rating can be a poor predictor for how well he’ll do on Election Day.
In 1956, President Eisenhower’s popularity was a full 17 points higher than his vote share — something that undoubtedly causes concern among Obama’s campaign strategists.
Here’s another: People otherwise inclined to support the president have noticed that in certain respects, he’s the Nowhere Man.
Rush Marcus of The Washington Post wrote that we’re living through the “Where’s Waldo Presidency.” Obama, she wrote, can be “strangely passive” and “unwilling, reluctant or late to weigh in on the issue of the moment.”
He gave only scanty marching orders to Congress on health care. With his recent budget, he abdicated on the deficit and entitlement reform. He all but ignored the recommendations of his own deficit reduction commission.
More recently, he has had little to say about the uprising in Libya and what he said, he said late. Americans have watched as European countries have taken the lead in the scramble to devise effective options to aid the rebels.
The Marcus column could well be a harbinger — a notice to others in the media that it’s now acceptable to begin unloading their own frustrations with this president.
Despite all this, many Republicans surveying their party’s prospects for 2012 remain cautious or downright glum.
Incumbent presidents are notoriously tough to unseat. Obama will draw from a very deep campaign war chest. He’ll be campaigning with the full trappings of his office, which comes with a large retinue and a big impressive airplane.
“Republicans underestimate President Obama at their own peril,” former Bush adviser Karl Rove told Politico. Still, Rove rated Obama only a “slight favorite.”
What has Republicans most worried is the lack of a clear champion. It’s very early, but the contenders most-often mentioned have obvious liabilities.
Mitt Romney was beaten last time out by John McCain, a deeply flawed candidate, and as governor, implemented an "Obamacare" precursor — the disastrous Massachusetts health plan.
Mike Huckabee doesn’t strike me as someone likely to unseat the incumbent, and whatever you think about Sarah Palin, she has high negatives and remains divisive.
The candidates you’d like to see in the race aren’t running, at least not yet: Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana. Still, Daniels gave a great speech recently on the dangers of debt and is looking more probable.
In short, this is a worrisome picture for Republicans, and it would be a shame if heavy hitters like Christie or Daniels sit this one out.
Obama may be formidable, but he’s not unbeatable. In two years, unemployment will probably remain high, Obama will still be playing defense on health care as well as taxes — the current Bush rates expire in 2012 — and more voters are likely to be fed up with the Where’s Waldo Presidency.
Memo to candidates still playing coy: 1. Victory is a real possibility. 2. Carpe diem.