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Why Obama's poll numbers have sunk

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
  • Julian Zelizer points to Obama paradox: Even as he wins big reforms, his approval lags
  • Zelizer: Obama took on major reform issues that were good for country, politically tricky
  • Obama put off promised government reform; now voters wary of him, Zelizer says
  • Zelizer: Until Obama shows he's focused on big concerns such as jobs, support in peril

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Arsenal of Democracy" and a book on former President Carter to be published next fall by Times Books. He is also the editor of a new book about former President George W. Bush to be published next fall by Princeton University Press.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- President Obama's supporters have been frustrated about the apparent paradox of this administration. With the recent passage of historic financial regulation legislation, many Democrats are having trouble grasping why his approval ratings still lag and why Democrats might lose control of the House in the fall elections.

Supporters say the economic stimulus bill, education and health care reform, and now financial reform, should have Americans looking at the White House with the same admiration they had for President Roosevelt in the 1930s or President Johnson at the height of his success in 1964 and 1965.

But according to a recent CBS News poll, just 40 percent of those polled approved of how the president was handling the economy. This was a drop of five percentage points since June.

Looking ahead at November, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged on NBC's Meet the Press, "I think there's no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control."

Video: Obama's approval tanks

Americans continue to complain that Washington is broken.

What explains this paradox? How should we understand the fate of a president and a party who have been relatively successful at passing their agenda, yet don't seem to be enjoying an electoral bounce?

The quick answer is, of course, jobs.

With the unemployment rate over 9 percent, many Americans are unhappy and scared. But there is more to it than that.

Several factors have lined up to put the president in this spot.

The first factor has to do with President Obama's decision to focus on controversial issues that he felt were important to the nation, even if they were not the most beneficial issues for his party. In other words, Obama selected issues such as health care and financial regulation that were sure to stimulate conservative opposition and cause concern among moderates.

At the same time, the president is a pragmatic politician who has been willing to cut deals to survive a notoriously difficult legislative process. In making those compromises, he has often angered many of his supporters on the left. The strategy of going big, yet doing so through big compromises, has resulted in an energized conservative movement, uneasy independent voters and a frustrated liberal base.

Given that Barack Obama ran a primary campaign in which he promised to pursue transformative politics and avoid the kind of compromises embraced by President Clinton, this has caused disappointment. Recent comments by the administration dismissing its liberal critics has only intensified bad feelings.

The second factor has to do with the political process. As Obama himself made clear when he ran for office in 2008, the power of interest groups and private money in Washington undermines trust of government.

After his victory in the South Carolina primary, he said: "We're looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington. ... Make no mistake about what we're up against. We're up against the belief that it's all right for lobbyists to dominate our government, that they are just part of the system in Washington. But we know that the undue influence of lobbyists is part of the problem and this election is our chance to say that we are not going to let them stand in our way anymore."

Well the lobbyists have been doing just fine. There have been too many stories about how politicians avoid issues that threaten key interest groups or about how key interest groups co-opt legislation for their own benefit.

Americans have heard a lot, for example, about how the Interior Department's Mineral Management Service, under the current and previous administration, allowed BP to conduct drilling operations despite serious concerns about their safety. President Obama himself admitted that MMS was a government body "plagued by corruption" because of the cozy relationship between the regulators and the regulated.

Recently, according to the Sunlight Foundation, the pharmaceutical industry has begun advertisements in favor of candidates, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who supported a deal made between the White House and the pharmaceutical industry. The industry promised to support the bill if the administration agreed to limit the cost savings it would seek from the industry.

As a result, citizens are deeply cynical. Given the large donations that private interest groups make to candidates, including the health care industry and Wall Street executives, it is naturally hard to believe that Washington would ever really pass government reform.

When the president decided to drop the issue of government reform to focus on policy, he set himself up for the problem he now faces.

After inspiring many Americans to vote for a candidacy that promised change in the way politics works -- one that insisted on taking the political process seriously and making reform a high-priority issue -- President Obama only fueled an atmosphere of disappointment and disbelief that has been an obstacle as he tries to sell his policies.

The president wants Americans to focus on the 30 million people who will now receive health insurance, but many instead remember how, on the way to reform, the health care industry was able to subvert any serious efforts to cut costs or their profits.

The third problem has to do with the limitations that all presidents face in trying to direct public opinion. With the midterms on the horizon, Obama wants the public to focus on the crises he is helping to solve, such as health care. But the public is more concerned about the crises of joblessness, the oil spill, and, to some extent, the troubled military strategy in Afghanistan.

Like many presidents before him, President Obama can't control what concerns the public the most. Until he helps to alleviate the fears that are most important to voters, he will continue to suffer from the current perceptions.

Americans want jobs. Until they feel economically secure, all the legislation in the world won't be able to put President Obama's coalition back together again.

If the midterms go badly, we are likely to see a shift of focus in the White House from big and controversial issues toward smaller policy questions that stimulate less controversy. We can expect that the White House will turn its full attention to unemployment and take more serious steps to reorient the strategy in Afghanistan.

Rather than complain about what the public thinks or dismiss liberals as unrealistic, Obama would do better to be more responsive to public concerns, with joblessness at the top of his list. The president must give serious consideration to another stimulus package, and be willing to spend the kind of political capital that he used in pushing for health care and financial regulation. He must also be willing to look at some of the shortcomings of the first bill, such as insufficient funds for public works projects and for assistance to the states.

Until he can help turn around the economy, it is unlikely that Americans will be much happier about what is going on in Washington.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.