Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who helps conduct the Wall Street Journal’s running surveys, offered a stark assessment this week: “America is on the path to electing the most unpopular president since 1948.”
He’s not wrong. 56 percent of registered voters see Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton negatively. That makes her the second least popular candidate left running for the highest office in the land. Luckily for Democrats, the least popular candidate is the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, viewed negatively by 65 percent of respondents.
Americans’ animus to the remaining options doesn’t stem from a fear of change; they are unhappy with the status quo, too. Yes, this spring Obama’s job-approval rating has ticked up a bit, to around 50 percent. But since mid-2009 — right as the glow was fading from Obama’s honeymoon — voters have been consistently pessimistic about the country’s direction, with 60 to 70 percent of Americans saying the country is on the wrong track.
How did we end up here? The 2016 cycle began with many Americans feeling like the promise of the Obama era was never kept. There has been no grand era of racial healing; crime is on the rise in many cities. The future of the next generation seems ever shakier; will they ever find real jobs, pay off debt, and start independent lives? The world beyond our borders feels more dangerous than before, with European cities bombed while our president dances the tango. A politically correct thought police on campus, broken families, an explosion of addiction and suicide — it’s as if the social fabric unravels the harder we try to cling to it.
Democrats may reflexively defend Obama, but their primary votes betray them; you can’t simultaneously believe that the Obama presidency was a boon to Americans and that Bernie Sanders is right to complain of a runaway oligarchy.
Bad leaders and bad times probably create a vicious cycle. If you feel like America’s in worse shape than it was four years ago — or eight, or twelve, or sixteen — you’re probably skeptical of the next president’s ability to make it much better. And a choice between Clinton and Trump isn’t likely to ease your worried mind.
Is there any reason to think a Clinton presidency would represent a big change from the Obama years? Maybe she’s a bit more hawkish than Obama, but she would still be the head of a fundamentally isolationist, anti-war party. Perhaps she’s instinctively inclined toward the center — too far right for an increasingly liberal party, though still much too far left for conservatives — but she is also a Clinton, acutely attuned to the political winds and willing to do anything to keep them at her back. When it comes down to it, she’ll maintain Obama’s policies if it means keeping her base happy.