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Obama is 'on the nose'

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Thursday, 5 August 2010

Recently the conservative American talk-show host Glenn Beck said “Obama’s policies are the World Cup”. Which he later translated to mean: “we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it … the rest of the world likes Barack Obama's policies, we do not.”

Beck is dead wrong about Americans not liking football (soccer if you must, lest it be confused with those sports mainly played with one’s hands that are called football). He is, however, on much sounder ground with his comments about Obama. Polls consistently show that Obama and his policies are significantly more popular around the world than they are in the US.

Reversing the order of most news bulletins let’s deal with the sports first and then politics. Soccer in the US is an increasingly popular sport. Its popularity amongst young people and women is a decades-old story, and the increasing Hispanisation of the US will see it become even more popular in the coming decades. Television ratings show that this year’s World Cup was the most watched ever in the US.


In reality when Beck says “we don’t like the World Cup”, he means a group of self-proclaimed “real Americans” like himself; the same “real Americans” who are struggling to accept America’s growing Hispanic population and the fact that they have a cosmopolitan president in the White House.

For my money, the best response to Beck’s soccer comments came from his FOX News colleague Bill O’Reilly. When debating Beck’s comments with him, O’Reilly asked who Beck was referring to when he claimed “we don’t like it?” “Do you have a mouse in your pocket?” O’Reilly asked.

No doubt Glenn Beck’s anti-soccer tirade struck a cord with some Americans, but it is his anti-Obama rhetoric that really hits home. There is no escaping Obama’s domestic unpopularity. At the one-year mark he was comparatively the second most unpopular president since polling began during the Truman administration. Only President Ford has been more unpopular. Ford was unelected, gave an unpopular early pardon to Nixon and to boot was presiding over an increasingly wobbly economy. Still on his one-year anniversary, he was a mere 2 per cent more unpopular than Obama. Conversely Obama supporters can take hope from Reagan’s polls; Reagan was nearly as unpopular as Obama at the 18-month mark and went on to enjoy lasting popularity.

The commonality here is economic woes. Particularly high unemployment rates in 1982 and 2010 coincided with low presidential popularity. As the economy improved (in terms of growth and employment, although not the federal deficit) so did Reagan’s popularity. The Clinton presidency is another case where US economic performance and presidential popularity rose in unison. The economy saved stupid when it came to the Senate dismissing him from office over the Lewinsky affair in 1999.

Obama could take some hope from the fact that both Reagan and Clinton took a while to find their voice but went on to be highly regarded as public communicators. Both men had many detractors - marked by such labels as “the Teflon president” for Reagan and “Slick Willie” for Clinton - but retrospectively they are both regarded as great public speakers with a special ability to connect with the American people. Reagan was called “the great communicator” and Clinton was noted as an impressive orator with a special capacity to empathise with the common man.

What Obama could learn from these two presidents is that fortunes can change, one can be blessed by one’s opponent’s weaknesses, and Americans tend to reward politicians with a populist touch.


This populist touch, however, is one of the key differences between Obama and his popular predecessors. During the US financial meltdown of 2008 Obama’s cool, calm and collected persona was largely to his advantage over an erratic John McCain. This asset has come to be much less valuable in 2010. Obama’s cerebral nature has been seen as too removed from the people, particularly his response to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama can be congratulated for not evoking the false anger of a Kevin Rudd when he claimed the financial crisis was a “shitstorm!” However, beyond the African-American community, Obama’s lack of a “common touch” means he is not connecting with the largely apolitical masses in America. He has neither Reagan’s “grandfatherly” aura nor Clinton’s donut shop charm.

Reagan’s feel good style led to people who disagreed with his policies and ideas nonetheless voting for him and, similarly with Clinton, while people might not have known exactly what he stood for, they still voted for him. Americans increasingly seem to not want to give Obama such benefit of the doubt. This does not bode well for his future. Polls suggest he is trailing Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Newt Gingrich and is tied with Sarah Palin in hypothetical match-ups for the next election. These candidates all have serious flaws, reflecting just how on the nose Obama currently is with the American public.

It was not supposed to be like this: Obama was elected with great enthusiasm and millions of people donated their time and money to help his campaign. The problem is that Obama’s most vocal supporters are significantly overrepresented in the American media space: namely politically active liberals and young people. This isn’t a conservative point, it is just a fact. This is the most media-oriented and involved American youth of all time. As for liberals, caring about what’s in the news and wanting to express one’s opinions in the public sphere are quintessential liberal traits. Recognising these two facts might have made commentators more cautious about predicting an electoral realignment. As time has gone on, Obama has become more and more unpopular. Therefore, unless he finds a better way of connecting with the American people, or the economy improves markedly, tough times lay ahead.

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This is a longer version of an article first published in The Australian on July 30, 2010.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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