Rupert Cornwell: The news is getting better, but not for Obama

World Focus

Saturday 23 April 2011 00:00
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Barack Obama, the conventional wisdom runs, is cruising to a second term.

But a new survey yesterday, showing Americans in their sourest mood since soon after he became President more 27 months ago, gives distinct pause for thought.

The bleak findings of the latest New York Times/CBS News monthly poll are all the more surprising since they come when the economy appears to be strengthening, government figures show unemployment falling, and when the stockmarket is back at levels last seen before the 2008/2009 crash.

But the good news seems to be having little impact. Seven out of 10 Americans say the country is "on the wrong track" while almost 80 per cent say the economy is either marking time or getting worse, a sharp deterioration in the space of a single month.

Almost certainly, the renewed pessimism reflects a variety of factors; the surging national debt and the inability of the parties to agree how to reduce it, highlighted by the warning from the Standard & Poors rating agency about future US creditworthiness, and the familiar American fixation with rising petrol prices – fast approaching their previous record of mid-2008.

The gloom has fed back into perceptions of Mr Obama. The poll puts his approval rating at 46 per cent, with 45 per cent disapproving. All of the polls agree the President's approval right now is below the 50 per cent mark seen as the minimum for an incumbent to be reasonably confident of re-election.

If anything, the poll suggests, Americans are more inclined to buy the harsh cuts proposed by Republicans to tackle the deficit, rather than Mr Obama's plan for a combination of cuts and tax increases. By a 55/33 margin, respondents said they would rather have fewer services from smaller government than more services from a larger one.

The President has some clear advantages. For the moment, he has a massive fundraising edge, while the absence of a primary opponent means he will be able to run exactly the campaign he wants.

Nonetheless, the poll suggests he is distinctly vulnerable in 2012, assuming Republicans can come up with a credible candidate. That is, of course, a big "if", when none of the party's likely field has made much of an impression, and when such headlines as exist are dominated by Donald Trump, who is pushing the far-right "birther" argument against Mr Obama.

Republican strategists warn that harping on this theme will merely convince centrist voters that the party has been taken over by a lunatic fringe, driving them back into the arms of Mr Obama.

However these fears may be overdone. Mr Trump may be well-known – but 60 per cent of Republicans interviewed in the Times/CBS News survey do not believe he is a serious candidate. Of the others, Mitt Romney is the nearest thing to a front-runner, and Republicans are generally approving but wary. The rest of the field is simply not well enough known for voters to have an opinion either way.

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