Longtime Democratic pollster Peter Hart on Wednesday said President Obama's tax cut deal with Republican leaders came "too early" and "too easily," leaving American voters wondering when he'll show his backbone.
Speaking at a breakfast with reporters sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, Hart panned Obama's Tuesday news conference defending the deal, saying the president appeared "more petulant than he did inspired."
"What the American public is looking for and what they're trying to understand is his backbone," said Hart. "Where will this man stand up and where will he fight?"
While Hart conceded that he thought Obama ultimately made the right decision in opting for compromise on an extension of Bush-era tax cuts, he said Obama's posture is emblematic of the president's problem connecting with voters.
"The difficulty with what happened here is that instead of being eyeball to eyeball [with Republicans] and blinking, they probably saw him at 40 yards and blinking," said Hart, who also said he thinks the American public is still trying to understand "how firm, how tough he is — and two years in, unlike other presidents, they don't have a good measure of that."
What has come through loud and clear in Hart's famed focus groups with voters, though, is that while most like the president personally, they don't view him as relatable.
"People did not see him as connecting, communicating, relating to the average person," said Hart. "This is a person who has great communication skills, but that sense of closeness, that sense of relationship was all missing."
Ultimately, Hart said the president's prospects for reelection hinge largely on the economy, noting that he isn't sure whether an 8 percent unemployment rate come 2012 will translate to an Obama loss, but "if it's 10 percent, he will not be reelected."
Hart also thinks Obama is in store for a tougher two years than former President Clinton endured after massive Republican gains in the 1994 midterm elections.
"Clinton was a survivor," said Hart, noting that after the '94 election the former president made the decision that he would do whatever it took to win reelection.
"If [Clinton] had been on the Titanic, he would have been in Life Boat One," he joked. "I don't care what the wig looked like or how the dress fit, he would have been in Life Boat One and he would have been out of there."
It's a stark contrast to Obama, whom Hart called "an adapter" — a quality he thinks makes it much harder for the current president to successfully navigate the new political environment.
"Being an adapter just makes it that much tougher in this period of time," said Hart. "I think what he did this week on tax cuts was adapting to what his situation was."