Winning the Future
by David Goodloe

During his State of the Union address last month, Barack Obama spoke of “winning the future.”

To most ears, it had a positive sound to it — even if Sarah Palin famously used the acronym WTF to describe her reaction to it (and it wasn’t an abbreviation of “winning the future,” either, the way that Gerald Ford’s WIN in the 1970s was an acronym for “whip inflation now”).

Palin, of course, is a divisive figure. When she is the topic of conversation, no one seems to be in the middle of the road. She always inspires strong feelings, either pro or con.

For that reason, I have long felt that she is not likely to be the Republicans’ presidential nominee — in 2012 or, for that matter, any other year. She’s kind of like Hillary Clinton. Her supporters really love her. Her detractors really hate her.

No middle ground. No room for compromise.

Palin’s unfavorable ratings are just too high. To be as politically extreme as Palin and be nominated for — and go on to win — national office, you have to be likable, and she isn’t. Palin may, at times, sound warm and fuzzy like Ronald Reagan, but, upon closer inspection, she comes across as cold and prickly like Pat Buchanan.

Obama is a different kind of politician, more inclusive in his words, less defiant in his actions. In 2008, I guess he always seemed to be cut more from the same cloth as the politicians who have been the traditional American leaders. He came across as someone who rose from humble beginnings — a latter–day Lincoln — and had a vision.

But, for all his talk about winning the future, Obama is not winning. He is running out of time. By this time next year, the New Hampshire primary is almost sure to be over, and the Republican front runner is likely to be anointed.

Obama is losing ground to that candidate, according to Gallup. A recent survey says Obama is running dead even with a nameless, faceless, generic Republican opponent.

At about the same time last year, when that question was asked, Obama led, 44 to 42. Now, they are tied at 45 to 45.

The big shift seems to be coming from the folks who said they were undecided. Last year, 11% of respondents said they were undecided. That number is down to 6% today, and the generic Republican picked up three times as many of the undecideds as Obama did.

When you break down the findings, it seems that Obama’s support remains fairly constant among women and nonwhites, and his opposition remains equally constant among men and whites. But, while race and gender were often mentioned when Obama and Hillary Clinton were dueling for the nomination, they do not appear to be the crucial battlegrounds today.

Another component of his 2008 triumph was young voters, and Obama’s popularity with them is clearly down. Young voters were unusually motivated to participate in 2008, and nearly two–thirds of them voted for the Democrat. Today, Gallup reports, barely a majority of young voters would vote to re–elect Obama.

How much of an impact will young voters have in 2012? Well, absent the kind of motivation that Obama provided three years ago — and absent an equally appealing Republican rival — my guess is that their participation rate will return to a more historically consistent level.

What may be even more worrisome for Obama is the trend among voters in the 35–to–54 age range. In 2008, Gallup says, Obama won 53% of the votes in that group. Today, only 43% say they will support his re–election.

That could be a problem for Obama because, unlike younger voters, people in that age range dotend to vote — at least in greater numbers than the young.

Voting, in fact, is something that people do more regularly as they get older. Thus, the older voters tend to be the more reliable ones. And maybe, in 2012, they will be motivated to support Obama because of his health care reform legislation (assuming it survives congressional repeal attempts).

If that proves to be the case, Obama may have the last laugh on all of us. Voters over the age of 55 only gave Obama 48% of their ballots in 2008, Gallup reports. Consequently, if health care reform is viewed favorably by older voters in 2012, a majority of them may support him for re–election.

But there is no indication that anything like that is happening. Only 43% of voters over the age of 55 support Obama against the generic Republican in 2012, Gallup says.

Poll numbers, of course, are fluid, like the approval ratings of which I wrote this week. And one thing that both should indicate is that presidents, with the “bully pulpit” of which Teddy Roosevelt spoke a century ago, have a certain amount of control over their fate — even when the midterm elections go heavily against them.

Gallup reminds its readers that, when a president is seeking re–election, the election is less a choice between two individuals as a referendum on the incumbent.

“That is not to say it won’t matter whom the Republicans choose as their standard–bearer,” writes Lydia Saad of Gallup, “but perhaps it matters slightly less than it would in an open election” like the one Obama won in 2008.

The voters’ verdict has yet to be written, but time is short for Obama. To make a convincing case for a second term, he must preside over a clearly improving economy — and, as long as unemployment remains where it is and job creation remains as anemic as it has been, it will be hard to persuade voters that things are getting better.

David Goodloe got his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas in 1982, and his master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Texas in 1991. He publishes the thoughtful weblog Freedom Writing. This post is cross posted from his website.

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