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Why Obama is Losing Independents

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

Gallup reported last week that President Obama’s job approval among Independent voters dipped to 38 percent, the lowest support he has ever received from this group of voters.

It would be too easy for Democrats to blame these numbers on the Tea Party movement. Some Independents are Tea Partiers – and those the President has forever lost – but not all Independents are Tea Partiers.

To understand why Obama has lost so many other Independents, we need to understand that Independents are a curious bunch. They don’t believe in partisan loyalty, yet they are notoriously fickle. They may be fairer than Fox and more balanced than MSNBC, and yet because they are beholden neither to personalities nor parties, but to issues, their love for a politician can be vanquished as quickly as s/he fails to perform.

Politicians love to chase Independents, but they best remember that when push comes to shove, Independents cut to the chase. Independents have determined that on too many of Obama’s campaign promises – the closing of Guantanamo Bay, the public (health-care) option, comprehensive energy and immigration reform, ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – the President is either foot-dragging or has simply failed to deliver. Part of this, to be sure, is systemic. Most presidents suffer from lower approval ratings in their second year in office because they become victims of the (required) big talk in the year before which had gotten them elected in the first place. But Obama must also take especial responsibility for so unrestrainedly tantalizing his base during the 2008 campaign and then so abruptly disenchanting them when the realities of governance stepped in. When even the Liberal faith in Obama falters, Independents can hardly be expected to hold the fort.

In recent days, the president’s firing of General McChrystal and his handling of the Gulf oil-spill has only confirmed the Independent voter’s growing conviction that Obama is not displaying the perspicacity of a president in charge. There is a sense of chaos, that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” or, as Jimmy Carter fatefully put in the potentially analogous summer of 1979, that the nation is suffering “a crisis of confidence.”

The White House is in full-scale damage-control, dispatching both the President and the Vice President on the campaign road, and sending David Axelrod on the Sunday talk-shows to talk their way out of this one. This is completely counter-productive.

Independents voted for Obama because he was not a Washington insider, believing that because he was not obligated or loyal to Democratic apparatchiks as the Clinton machine presumably was, he would be able get things done. More talk is only going to remind Independents that Obama can be no more than a Great Campaigner. The more the White House tries to damage control, the more it appears to be giving excuses. (And one talking point recurs with striking regularity: blame George W. Bush.)

Independents care neither for a donkey’s bray nor an elephant’s trumpet. They only care that the president gets something done (or delivers on a promise). The White House should realize that when they’re explaining, they’re already losing.

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