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Evans

The Unpopular Democrats

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Sep 10, 2010

The very first class I taught, my students did poorly on the first test and I did not handle the situation with the tact it deserved. Over the remaining semester, I spent countless hours and innumerable meetings with each student and saw tremendous improvement as the typical student improved two letter grades.

I thought that I did a good job teaching. Then I received my student evaluations. I received "D's" across the board, even on items like "accessible to students" when my efforts showed otherwise. That's when I learned a very important lesson: student evaluations do not measure teaching effectiveness but whether they like you.

President Obama is learning a similar lesson. Obama and Democrats have passed universal health care, financial regulatory reform, a stimulus package and a bailout of banks and the auto industry, but polls show a majority disapprove of Obama's performance as president. Republicans have large leads on the generic ballot test and some Americans even believe Obama is a Muslim, foreigner and/or a socialist, when ample evidence proves otherwise. In short, Obama and Democrats are learning that the public doesn't like them.

Why? Public opinion is shaped through elite opinion, mediated by the media, based on performance. Since most people do not pay close attention to politics, we rely on experts to tell us what it all means. The media relays the views of experts, whether public officials, party leaders or pundits (including overrated newspaper columnists), and we are influenced by those experts who reflect our general preferences. The standards that experts use to assess the president are peace and prosperity and the expectations set by the administration.

Using this model, we see why Obama and Democrats are in trouble. Republicans and conservatives strongly oppose Obama's policies and vision for the country, which firms up and energizes Republican opposition.

The problem is fellow Democrats and independents. Democrats are largely supportive of the president, but they are not enthused. They hear progressive experts complain that Obama sold them out by not fighting for a public option, a bigger stimulus and greater controls over the financial sector. They also hear Blue Dog Democrats complain about the costs of programs and the large deficit. The combined criticism depresses Democratic energy, which results in lower Democratic voter turnout.

Independents are more concerned with performance and believe Obama failed in his promise of post-partisanship and economic growth. Democrats have not included Republicans in legislating, Democrats pursued health care reform when the economy was the public's primary concern, and Obama's promise that passage of the stimulus would guarantee unemployment wouldn't exceed 8 percent didn't come true. This, combined with criticism across the ideological spectrum, leads to negative assessments.

The good news is that just as I learned to manage a classroom better and now receive very good evaluations, Obama and Democrats can learn to manage expectations better and moderate their policies. Democrats' midterm evaluations are coming soon and they don't look good. Will they change into something the public can believe in?

This article orginally appeared in the Sept. 10 edition of The Jackson Sun