Barack Obama the Underdog Against ‘Change’ Slogan

by Stuart Rothenberg June 21, 2012 · 11:45 AM EDT

Back in October, President Barack Obama’s job approval rating stood at 44 percent in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey and only 17 percent of voters said that things in the country were “generally headed in the right direction.” Those numbers suggested that the president would lose re-election unless he was able to change the direction of public opinion.

Five months later, with the GOP embroiled in something of a civil war over its presidential nomination and new job numbers suggesting that an economic recovery was under way, consumer confidence surged.

In fact, the nation’s outlook was so bright that one of my favorite columnists on the economy, Steven Pearlstein, wrote in the Washington Post in March that “the economy is actually getting better ... the recovery has reached a point where it looks to be self-sustaining, that magic point when growth begets more growth, hiring begets more hiring, spending begets more spending.”

Not surprisingly, the March NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found fully half of those polled approved of the president’s performance. So that revised trendline showed the president was likely to win a second term.

But now, after three months of poor job growth (total non-farm payroll employment rose by only 69,000 in May and 77,000 in April), weakness in the stock market, growing economic problems in Europe, poor retail sales last month and missteps by the president (including his comment that the private sector is “doing fine”), Obama is clearly once again in serious trouble.

In fact, the president now looks like a narrow underdog for re-election. Yes, a narrow underdog.

Obviously, four months from now things could be very different. It all depends on the news and the campaigns. After all, the outlook has already changed twice within the past year, so another change (or even two) is possible.

But that fact doesn’t alter the current trendline. And it shouldn’t obscure the reality that the later in the year it gets, the greater the pressure to change the narrative for the underdog and the more urgent the needed change.

So, the burden is now on the president and his strategists to produce evidence that a recovery is under way or, more likely, to change the way voters are going to evaluate the candidates during the next four and a half months.

It is simply not enough for the president and his advisers to blame former President George W. Bush for the nation’s economic problems. Polls do show that voters believe Obama inherited a mess, and that’s why they gave him the benefit of the doubt for so long.

But when voters show up at the polls in November they will not see Bush’s name on the ballot, and they will not be asked who is responsible for getting the economy into a ditch. Instead, they will be voting on whether Obama has started to turn things around and whether he is the man to finish the job over the next four years.

While most polls don’t yet show the president trailing in his bid for a second term, polling is often a lagging indicator. National and swing state survey data demonstrate a slow but steady erosion in Obama’s numbers, including in hypothetical ballot tests, and that deterioration is likely to continue if more bad news comes along.

For the White House, the next round of unemployment and new job numbers scheduled for release on July 6 is crucial for the Obama campaign’s effort to change the narrative. More bad numbers will put the president in an even deeper hole.

The president’s high favorable rating shows that swing voters are sympathetic to him, but as bad news appears, those key voters are likely to desert Obama in the presidential race. More bad news, after all, would translate into more dissatisfaction and pessimism.

It’s not that voters are so enamored of Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Instead, it’s that over time swing voters are likely to be more inclined to favor change if the news on the jobs front is poor and if voters conclude that the president simply has not succeeded.

Obama was correct when he told donors at a recent event that the GOP’s strategy was to blame him. “It’s very easy to put on a bumper sticker. ‘It’s Obama’s Fault,’” he said to chuckles from the sympathetic audience.

But there is nothing funny or unusual about it. Obama did the same thing in 2008, as did Bill Clinton in 1992 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
When voters are unhappy and want change, challengers simply say, “It’s time for change.” And that message works unless there are other equally effective messages that the incumbent can deliver.

Indeed, the fact that the slogan — whether “It’s Obama’s Fault” or simply “Vote Change, Vote Romney” — fits on a bumper sticker is only a plus for the GOP. It doesn’t mean that the bumper sticker is wrong or that the voters will reject it.