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Obama is fast losing white voters' support

His approval ratings with the crucial bloc have plunged since April. Strategists say the healthcare debate is largely to blame, but that's not the only reason.

September 07, 2009|Peter Wallsten

WASHINGTON — After a summer of healthcare battles and sliding approval ratings for President Obama, the White House is facing a troubling new trend: The voters losing faith in the president are the ones he had worked hardest to attract.

New surveys show steep declines in Obama's approval ratings among whites -- including Democrats and independents -- who were crucial elements of the diverse coalition that helped elect the country's first black president.

Among white Democrats, Obama's job approval rating has dropped 11 points since his 100-days mark in April, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. It has dropped by 9 points among white independents and whites over 50, and by 12 points among white women -- all groups that will be targeted by both parties in next year's midterm elections.

"While Obama has a lock on African Americans, his support among white voters seems to be almost in a free fall," said veteran Republican pollster Neil Newhouse.

Strategists in both parties blame Obama's decline on growing discontent with his policy agenda, particularly after a month of often-rowdy debate over his proposed healthcare overhaul, in which some conservatives accused him of socialism. Obama's ratings seem likely to rise again if he wins passage of healthcare legislation this fall.

But the drop in support among whites also comes as some conservatives have stoked controversies that have the potential to further erode Obama's standing among centrists -- including some controversies that resulted from White House stumbles.

One such episode came to a head Sunday when Van Jones, Obama's green jobs czar, resigned after a week of criticism over past inflammatory statements and for signing onto conspiracy theories questioning whether the U.S. government played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks. A White House official acknowledged Sunday that Jones had been vetted less rigorously than other officials.

In another episode, some conservatives have criticized a White House dinner invitation issued to the lead lawyer in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuits that have forced the government to disclose Bush-era interrogation techniques. The lawyer was invited to an event for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.

And Obama's plan to address the nation's schoolchildren Tuesday has prompted an outcry among some conservative parents and GOP officials. Some of them have accused the White House of trying to infuse "socialism" into the minds of young people.

These controversies have followed conspiracy theories that the president was born overseas and is ineligible to hold office, and that his true religion is Islam -- false rumors that some Democrats worry could be affecting the public's view of the president and his party.

Pew first identified a slippage in white support immediately after a news conference in July, when Obama surprised many by saying that a white police officer had acted "stupidly" in arresting a black Harvard professor.

Still unclear is whether Obama's slide in the polls is due solely to his policies, or questions about his personal background or allegiances.

During the presidential campaign last fall, the nation's economic meltdown swamped any attempts by Republicans to portray Obama as having radical associations with figures such as his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

Some conservatives, such as Fox's Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, have argued that Jones, an outspoken Bay Area black activist who once described himself as a communist, fit the same pattern.

One black congressman, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), was quoted last week alleging that opposition to Obama's healthcare policies was "a bias, a prejudice, an emotional feeling."

"Some Americans have not gotten over the fact that Obama is president of the United States. They go to sleep wondering, 'How did this happen?' " Rangel said, according to the New York Post.

Democratic pollster David Beattie conducted a survey last month in one competitive congressional district that found that more than a quarter of independents believed Obama had not proven his natural-born status. The same sentiment was expressed by nearly 6 in 10 Republican women -- a group that Beattie said would be important for a Democratic victory.

He declined to name the district because the polling was private, but said that such questions about Obama's background seemed to be a "proxy" for voters' growing unease with Obama's ambitious agenda, which has included a potential push to create a government-sponsored health insurance plan.

Surveys show that the vast majority of Americans like Obama personally, but that they are increasingly skeptical of policies that seem to expand the scope of government.

"We're having an economic culture war," Beattie said.

"The criticisms of Obama are about the fundamental role of government in our economy."

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