Monday, February 1, 2010

President Obama recently became one of the fastest presidents in history to drop below a majority approval rating, doing so in his 10th month on the job. Polling data strongly indicate that this sharp decline in approval is because of policy, not personality. Specifically, voters are unhappy with policies that involve unprecedented spending without a lot of economic progress.

Disappointment - not “hope” or “change” - is the emotion now associated with Mr. Obama. Meanwhile, Americans are finding reassurance, and even optimism, in budget discipline and fiscal honesty - even if that honesty is brutal.

Right now, the government executives who are giving the fiscal honesty and discipline that constituents crave are most of the nation’s Republican governors. They are being honest about the hard choices that must be made to turn around state economies and budgets. Their actions follow their words: tough budget cuts coupled with genuine sympathy (favoring tax cuts over tax increases) for struggling taxpayers. Republican governors’ constituents appreciate the candor from their leadership and their state executives being straight with them.

To put it more bluntly, when it comes to budgets and spending, the honest “No, we can’t afford everything” is beating the once-winsome “Yes, we can!”

This is one of the reasons why the president’s popularity has dropped below 50 percent in his first year while that of Republican governors is holding steady or rising. Here’s how several governors are maintaining or gaining popularity with fiscal tough love:

c After rebuilding Mississippi’s rainy-day fund, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour fought his state Legislature’s urge to spend that fund right away to balance the state budget. Instead, he’s planning ahead by spreading the fund over four years and making serious budget cuts. His positive approval rating is 63 percent, including 62 percent with independents and 36 percent with blacks.

c Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels turned $700 million in red ink into a $1 billion surplus, and when revenues were projected further downward, his response was to continue cutting rather than raising taxes. He explained his budget success to the Wall Street Journal recently: “The answer is that we spent less money than we took in.” How’s that for straight shooting? Mr. Daniels was re-elected by 18 percentage points in 2008, notably winning nearly 60 percent of independents’ votes. His job approval is at 69 percent.

c Gov. Rick Perry achieved balance in the Texas 2010 budget through cuts in general revenue spending of $1.6 billion - millions of which were achieved with the governor’s line-item veto. His 2010 budget also contains tax cuts for tens of thousands of small-business owners - a popular move for an influential, jobs-creating constituency. When Texas sales-tax revenues were projected recently to be significantly down, Mr. Perry said he is looking to cut rather than raise taxes to compensate for any sales-tax shortfall. Fifty-seven percent of Texans approve of Mr. Perry’s performance as governor.

c Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie are partnering with their Democratic Legislature to relieve Vermonters of $36 million of property-tax pressure in the next two fiscal years. Mr. Douglas earns an “excellent” or “good” from 48 percent of Vermonters and “fair” from 31 percent. (Fewer than 20 percent are unhappy with the governor.)

c Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is planning to use a process known as “unallotment” - similar to a line-item veto - to make $2.7 billion in cuts, thus balancing his state’s budget. Mr. Pawlenty also has proposed to amend the state’s constitution to require its budgets to be balanced - for the state to spend only as much as it receives in tax revenue. Common sense plays well in Minnesota. Mr. Pawlenty’s approval is at 52 percent.

c Gov. Linda Lingle plans to close a $1.23 billion revenue shortfall in Hawaii for the two-year budget cycle of 2009-2011 and already vetoed 10 bills in 2009 that would have increased the budget shortfall. She has a 51 percent favorable rating in one of the nation’s bluest states.

c “My goal is to slow spending and allow revenues to recover,” is the simple pledge from South Dakota’s Gov. Michael Rounds. In unveiling his proposed balanced budget last month, he said, “Many families across the state are pinching their pennies to make ends meet, and state government also should do what it can to hold down spending.” That type of we’re-all-in-the-same-boat language - and actions - are welcome ones for financially stressed taxpayers. Fifty-six percent of them give Mr. Rounds an “excellent” or “good” on a job well done.

By now, Mr. Obama surely is aware that his party’s version of “Welcome Back Carter” is not playing well with voters. To address this, he should take a moment to look at how his fellow government executives at the state level are handling fiscal hard times (bluntly, better than he is). He should take a closer look at the laboratories of democracy as they become laboratories of financial recovery. He also might take a lesson from these governors’ politically successful policy playbooks and redirect his party’s failed approach to governing. From the looks of the Obama budget released yesterday, he needs to act fast.

Ed Goeas is president and chief executive of the Tarrance Group, a Republican research and strategy firm. He co-authors the annual, nationally respected Battleground poll and was recognized by the American Association of Political Consultants as Pollster of the Year in 1994.

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