By Justin Sink - 09/26/14 06:00 AM EDT
President Obama's poll numbers are plummeting in deep-blue states, such as New York and California, with core liberal supporters who have stuck with him through thick and thin beginning to sour on his leadership.
Obama’s decisions to punt on immigration reform, defend government surveillance and attack fighters in the Middle East have all alienated parts of the coalition that elected him to the White House twice.
The growing dissatisfaction on the left could limit Obama's ability to help Democrats in the midterm elections and could threaten his political legacy if — as happened with George W. Bush — his party begins to abandon him.
Earlier this month, only 45 percent of California voters said they approved of how Obama was handling his job — a 5 percent decrease from June.
National polls also suggest a growing discontent.
A YouGov survey released last week showed the president’s approval rating at 40 percent, and that among Democrats, Obama had slipped eight points since June.
“He’s entering the lame duck period of his presidency where people are tired of him, and aware of his vulnerabilities and flaws,” said Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer.
“As gridlock gets extended into a sixth year of a presidency, people may conclude that, while Congress might be at fault, it’s the president’s responsibility to move the Congress,” added Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. “Democrats are less confident in his abilities and less enamored of his performance.”
Obama has taken a number of steps in recent months that put him out of step with the coalition of young adults, women and minorities that helped him win the White House.
The problems began last year with revelations about the National Security Agency’s top-secret surveillance programs — the same kind of programs that were condemned on the left during the George W. Bush years.
A Pew poll this summer found that, despite Obama’s efforts to explain and reform the surveillance programs, 58 percent of so-called “solid liberals” continued to oppose the NSA efforts.
Concerns about the president’s use of military force, meanwhile, have intensified with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Liberals largely elected President Obama in 2008 on the promise he would extract the U.S. from Middle East conflicts, and the prospect of a new military campaign is not sitting well with many of them.
A CBS/New York Times poll released last week showed 42 percent of Democrats had concerns about the president’s approach to fighting ISIS.
His approval rating on counterterrorism more broadly is down 16 percentage points with Democrats since March. And less than half of Democrats — 47 percent — say they have a lot of confidence in Obama’s ability to handle an international crisis.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president is less concerned about his poll numbers than national security.
"Over the course of the next two years that he remains in office, that regardless of what the polls say, his top priority is going to be the safety and security of the American public," Earnest said.
A senior administration official argued that the eroding poll numbers weren’t representative of declining support for the president or his foreign policy.
Instead, the official said, the decline represented a general anxiety over conflicts in the Middle East, Russian incursions into Ukraine and fears about the Ebola epidemic. The official noted that, when the public was asked if they supported the way Obama has addressed each of those crises, majorities did.
That isn’t true on another issue that is weighing the president down in polls: immigration.
Since announcing that he would delay executive action on immigration reform until after the midterm elections, Obama’s numbers have plummeted with Hispanic voters. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 47 percent of Latino voters approved of the president’s performance, down 15 points over the past 20 months.
The White House acknowledged the delay would be unpopular, especially with Hispanics.
“The president is willing to take a little political heat from the pundits, from some of the advocates in the Hispanic community in particular, in order to ensure that the policy that he puts forward is one that can be sustained,” Earnest said earlier this month.
Holding off on immigration is expected to boost some of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats, including Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Begich of Alaska. All had asked Obama not to act unilaterally on immigration.
But as Obama’s base abandons him, helping Democratic candidates becomes a tougher task for the White House. Although the president has attended a slew of committee fundraisers, he has yet to appear at a campaign event with any Democratic candidate this cycle.
White House officials say Obama will ramp up his travel next month, when the public’s attention will shift largely to the midterms.
But the president is expected to stay away from states where Democrats are in close races, over concern he could be an anchor. Campaign stops will likely be in states like Minnesota and Michigan, where Obama has a deep reservoir of support, and Democratic candidates enjoy comfortable leads in the polls.
Political experts say that, although Obama’s dwindling approval ratings are restricting his power, he’s not yet at risk of a wholesale intraparty revolt like the one experienced by President George W. Bush.
Democrats are still “relatively happy” with the president’s policies, even if they grow disenchanted with him as an individual, Zelizer said.
“Obama governs through pragmatism and, while the crisis-by-crisis approach causes some problems, it’s harder to have a sharp turn away from it like Republicans with the Iraq War,” he said.
The president will also have a chance to bring his base back into the fold over his final two years, Jillson said.
“Young people, unmarried women and Hispanics are difficult to turn out in a midterm, and he’s struggling there,” said Jillson. “But that doesn’t mean they’re available to Republicans. It just means Obama is going to have to ultimately satisfy their policy demands through initiatives after the election.”