Is Obama “Going Positive” Because Favorability Cratering?

Yesterday I did something I rarely do: blogged while having the tube on to political talk in the background. Last time I did that was on the day of the Supreme Court’s ACA ruling, when I had Fox News on because I was responsible for writing a TNR piece on conservative reaction to the decision. It was a painful if somewhat useful experience.

But yesterday it was MSNBC I was sorta listening to and occasionally watching (the latter in order to view some of my blogger friends who drifted on and off various shows as guests), and it was very interesting to observe a major media meme in formation: Obama’s new “big choice ad” had aired; a new NBC/WSJ poll (of obvious interest to MSNBC gabbers) was out showing Obama’s personal favorability ratings at a lower level than ever–so like magic, the interpretation emerged that the president had “gone positive” because his anti-Romney ads were taking a toll on his crucial resource of personal popularity. Chuck Todd was pushing this line with particular self-confidence.

I was skeptical immediately about this pat answer to a complex set of questions, and grew much more skeptical after reading Nate Cohn’s cautionary analysis at TNR today:

The survey found that Obama’s favorability rating was just 36 percent—probably the lowest number since he ascended to national prominence—and there are already simmering discussions of whether Obama’s more aggressive ad campaigns have backfired. But the NYT/CBS poll should be treated with caution: It’s still far from clear that Obama’s favorability ratings have taken a hit.

Sure, the NYT/CBS poll was bad for Obama. It just wasn’t as bad as it might seem, since NYT/CBS has consistently found Obama with lower favorability ratings. In March, NYT/CBS found Obama’s favorability rating at just 42 percent—far lower than other pollsters. While a drop from 42 to 36 is significant, it’s not the same as a drop from 50 to 36. Even more importantly, NYT/CBS’s findings haven’t been matched by other firms—at least not yet. The other periodic surveys conducted in July show that Obama’s favorability ratings are holding steady, although his unfavorable might have ticked up slightly.

But how about the other side of the syllogism: that the Obama campaign thinks the president’s personal popularity is lagging, so it’s decided to change its tactics and “go positive”?

For one thing, while the new ad is sunny, has nice soft music in the background, and features the president talking straight to the camera in measured, pleasant tones, it remains a “comparative ad” loaded with negative information about Mitt Romney. The main difference is that it focuses not on his record at Bain or his failure to release his tax returns–or for that matter, his odd singing voice–but on his agenda. And it’s been fairly obvious for some time that this is where the Obama campaign would go next after the Bain/tax attacks had raised doubts about Mitt’s solidarity with middle-class Americans.

So no, it’s not all that clear that the new ad is a panicked change of plan due to the self-inflicted damage of “negative ads” by Obama. It could be part of the plan itself.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.