Obama's team banks on his 'regular guy' appeal

By Ken Thomas

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 29 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

A girl reacts after asking President Barack Obama about Justin Beiber as he visited with students in Skipwith, Va.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama: Mr. Likable.

At least that's what the president's advisers hope Americans who are frustrated by the economy and looking for someone to blame will remember when they vote next November.

His team is emphasizing the president's "regular guy" appeal, putting him in small-town diners, at roadside pit stops and on Jay Leno's couch. Those settings are designed to highlight his likeability, a political strength, even as the economy, a political weakness, sputters along a year before the 2012 election.

During his recent bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia, the president surprised lunchtime crowds at small-town restaurants and barbecue joints. He took fielded questions from students at a rural high school. One girl asked him if he knew pop singer Justin Bieber.

While out West last week, Obama talked with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" about his trip to a popular chicken and waffle house in Los Angeles, where he ordered the No. 9 "Country Boy" on the menu. The president also joked about first lady Michelle Obama's penchant for handing out healthy Halloween treats.

"She's been giving, for the last few years, kids fruit and raisins in a bag. And I said, 'The White House is going to get egged. ... You need to throw some candy in there ... a couple Reese's Pieces or something,'" Obama said to laughter.

All kidding aside, Obama's strong personal favorability ratings in polls are the counterpoint to his sagging job approval numbers. Advisers privately acknowledge that's what is helping his overall standing hold fairly steady in the mid-40s.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll showed that 54 percent of adults had a favorable impression of the president, while 44 percent had an unfavorable one. It's a picture virtually unchanged since the end of his first year in office.

The same survey found that 78 percent considered Obama a "likable person." Compare that with Obama's job approval ratings in the same poll: 46 percent approve while 52 percent disapprove of his performance in office.

As November 2012 draws closer and the economy shows little sign of improvement, it's unclear whether his personality will help him offset the frustration many voters feel about economic progress.

Pollsters say a president's job approval rating tends to more predictive of re-election, but when people like a president personally, they're more inclined to be open to his arguments.

"It's better to be liked or admired than not to be, especially when you're in tough times," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

Added Republican pollster David Winston: "He has a clear track record at this point and that's what his job approval reflects. He can't avoid his record but it's not like people are not willing to listen him."

American politics has seen its share of presidents promoting their personal side, perhaps even more so in the Internet age, as they work to connect with voters. Many have waxed nostalgic about mixing with people outside the nation's capital.

But with the country divided over his policies and worried about the economy, Obama may need to rely on his likability more than most.

His current personal approval ratings fall just below some of his predecessors at this point of his presidency.

In early October 2003, 60 percent had a favorable opinion of President George W. Bush, according to Gallup. By the 2004 election, the number had dipped to 51 percent as he won re-election.

Bill Clinton's personal approval rating grew from 34 percent in April 1992, as he battled for the Democratic nomination, to more than 60 percent by the summer of 1992, according to Gallup. In late September 1995, as he sought a second term, Clinton had a favorability of 61 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.

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