It’s not that complicated

IT’S NOT THAT COMPLICATED…. Joe Scarborough, whose media reach now includes a Politico column, argues today that “mixed messages” have undermined President Obama’s political standing.

How did a president sitting at 70 percent in the polls manage to squander so much political capital and personal goodwill in just two years?

In 2008, Obama won with a huge wave of independent voters. In 2010, polls show independents leaving Democrats in droves.

In 2008, Obama impressed many Republicans I met on the campaign trail with his promise to bring a more mature, post-partisan style to Washington. In 2010, Gallup’s polls show him to be the most polarizing president in modern history.

There’s a lot wrong with this. Treating “independents” as a coherent entity, for example, continues to be a common mistake. For that matter, labeling the president “polarizing” — apparently meaning Democrats like him and Republicans don’t — is pretty tired. (It’s not Obama’s fault Republicans moved to the hard right and started rejecting mainstream ideas, including the ones they came up with.)

But most importantly, Scarborough considers the president’s lower approval ratings “the biggest mystery surrounding Barack Obama.” As the MSNBC host sees it, the president started with enormous support, but saw it slip because, Scarborough believes, Obama insisted on being “the Democrat in chief,” and “dividing the country.”

This is truly bizarre analysis.

The president hasn’t been especially partisan at all, and has repeatedly angered his Democratic base by trying, in vain, to work and find common ground with Republicans — whose sole goal appears to be destroying him. Obama, far from being a rigid ideologue or partisan, has been willing to compromise, negotiate, and reach deals in the interest of pragmatism. Scarborough’s entire criticism seems backwards.

As for the “big mystery” as to why the president’s approval ratings could not stay at their early-’09 levels, here’s a big hint: unemployment is at 9.6%. When the economy stinks, presidents tend to suffer politically. As Atrios noted this morning, “If the economy was great, all the other dumb stuff people imagine matters might actually, but it doesn’t.”

Let me put this in a way Joe Scarborough can understand: Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 with big poll numbers. By October of his second year in office, unemployment was nearly 11%, the president saw his approval ratings drop to the low 40s, and Republicans were already talking publicly about pleading with Reagan not to seek a second term.

Did this have something to do with “mixed messages,” “polarizing” politics, and/or Reagan being “the Republican in chief”? Or is it more likely Reagan saw a 25-point drop in his approval rating in less than two years because people were angry about a struggling economy?