December 17, 2009

Obama’s 2010 Challenge: Wake Up Liberals, Calm Down Independents

by Andrew Kohut, President, Pew Research Center

As with most presidents at the end of their first year in office, Barack Obama’s approval ratings have slipped in 2009, though not as much as the clamor of his critics would suggest. He is almost exactly where Ronald Reagan was at the end of 1981, when he too was struggling with the bad economy he had inherited.

What’s really exceptional at this stage of Obama’s presidency is the extent to which the public has moved in a conservative direction on a range of issues. These trends have emanated as much from the middle of the electorate as from the highly energized conservative right. Even more notable, however, is the extent to which liberals appear to be dozing as the country has shifted on both economic and social issues.

Pew Research surveys throughout the year have found a downward slope in support both for an activist government generally and for a strong safety net for the needy, in particular. Chalk up these trends to a backlash against Obama policies that have expanded the role of government.

More surprising is declining support for gun control, a fall in support for abortion rights, and a rise in public doubts about global warming. Much of the change on these issues has come from independents, a category now populated by many former self-identified Republicans. But a lack of passion among Democrats — and liberals in particular — is also a part of the story of this conservative trend among the public at large.

For example, over the course of the year, strong opposition to health care reform has topped strong support in every survey Pew Research has conducted. Our December poll brought this intensity gap into a sharp — and highly partisan — focus. While 39% of Republicans said they would be angry if current reform proposals were enacted, just 22% of Democrats said they would be very happy if the measures succeeded.

On abortion, for the first time in many years we find a close division of opinion between those who support the pro-choice position and those who do not. The issue has receded in importance among the public — our most recent poll finds that the contentious Congressional debate over an abortion funding amendment to the health care bill barely registered with the public when it was asked its opinion of the bill — but the decline in enthusiasm about the abortion issue is sharpest among liberals, while opposition to abortion has grown firmer among conservatives.

Similarly, belief that there is solid evidence of global warming, expressed by 70% or more of the public in recent years, has now slipped to 57%, a trend particularly pronounced among Republicans and independents, but also apparent to some extent among Democrats, too.

And for the first time since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, nearly as many people believe it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns (45%) than to control gun ownership (49%). As recently as April 2008, the public judged gun control more important by a 58%-37% margin. This shift is apparent among independents and Republicans, but not among Democrats.

Leadership anxiety — worries about a liberal president — may well account for the conservative shift among Republicans and independents on some of these issues. More puzzling is why liberals seem asleep on issues like health care and abortion. Are they dozing because they take comfort that one of their own is in the White House? Or are they disillusioned because they think Obama is not liberal enough?

On that last question, there is some indication that liberals may be feeling a bit ignored by the administration. When asked in December, most Republicans (66%) think Obama is listening most to his party’s liberals. But just 20% of liberal Democrats believe that. For the most part, they think the president is listening to moderates (54%) or that they are not sure who has his ear (25%).

Nonetheless, an overwhelming proportion of liberal Democrats (84%) say Obama is doing an excellent or good job “in standing up for the traditional positions of the Democratic Party.” A smaller majority of conservative and moderate Democrats (69%) say that Obama is doing an excellent or good job in advocating for the party’s traditional positions.

Whether it is disillusionment, apathy or over confidence, the administration and the Democratic Party will need a lot of help from liberals in 2010, given the public opinion trends on issues and the rising anti-incumbent sentiment abroad in the land. Many key elements of Obama’s base (young voters, minorities) do not have a particularly good record for turnout in off years, as Republican victories last month in Virginia and New Jersey illustrated. Obama’s challenge is to avoid further scares to skittish independents, while lighting a fire under lethargic liberals.