The Australian

By Brendon O'Connor

RECENTLY, the conservative American talk-show host Glenn Beck said "Obama's policies are the World Cup".

Which he later translated to mean: "we don't like the World Cup, we don't like soccer, we want nothing to do with it; the rest of the world likes Barack Obama's policies; we do not."

Beck is dead wrong about Americans not liking soccer. He is, however, on sounder ground with his comments about Obama. Polls consistently show Obama and his policies are significantly more popular around the world than they are in the US.

Soccer in the US is an increasingly popular sport. Its popularity among young people and women is a decades-old story, and the increasing Hispanisation of the US will see it become even more popular in the coming decades. Television ratings show that this year's World Cup was the most watched ever in the US.

However, there is no escaping Obama's domestic unpopularity.

At the one-year mark, he was the second-most unpopular president since polling began during the Truman administration. Only president Gerald Ford was more unpopular. Ford was unelected, gave an unpopular early pardon to Richard Nixon and to boot was presiding over an increasingly wobbly economy.

Still, on his one-year anniversary, he was a mere 2 per cent more unpopular than Obama. Conversely, Obama supporters can take hope from Ronald Reagan's polls; Reagan was nearly as unpopular as Obama at the 18-month mark and went on to enjoy lasting popularity.

The commonality here is economic woes. Particularly high unemployment rates in 1982 and this year coincided with low presidential popularity. As the economy improved, so did Reagan's popularity. The Clinton presidency is another case where US economic performance and presidential popularity rose in unison.

Obama could take some hope from the fact that both Reagan and Bill Clinton took a while to find their voice but went on to be highly regarded as public communicators. Both men had many detractors marked by such labels as "the Teflon president" for Reagan and "Slick Willie" for Clinton, but retrospectively they are both regarded as great public speakers with a special ability to connect with the American people.

Reagan was called "the great communicator" and Clinton was noted as an impressive orator with a special capacity to empathise with the common man.

What Obama could learn from these two is that fortunes can change; one can be blessed by one's opponent's weaknesses, and Americans tend to reward politicians with a populist touch.

This populist touch, however, is one of the key differences between Obama and his popular predecessors. During the US financial meltdown of 2008, Obama's cool, calm and collected persona was largely to his advantage over an erratic John McCain. This asset has come to be much less valuable this year. Obama's cerebral nature has been seen as too removed from the people, particularly his response to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama can be congratulated for not evoking the false anger of a Kevin Rudd when he claimed the financial crisis was a "shitstorm"

However, beyond the African-American community, Obama's lack of a "common touch" means he is not connecting with the largely apolitical masses in the US. He has neither Reagan's "grandfatherly" aura nor Clinton's doughnut shop charm.

Reagan's feel-good style led to people who disagreed with his policies and ideas nonetheless voting for him. Similarly, with Clinton, while people might not have known exactly what he stood for, they still voted for him.

Americans increasingly seem to not want to give Obama such benefit of the doubt. This does not bode well for his future. Polls suggest he is trailing Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich and is tied with Sarah Palin in hypothetical match-ups for the next election. These candidates all have serious flaws, reflecting how on the nose Obama is with the American public.

It was not supposed to be like this: Obama was elected with great enthusiasm, and millions of people donated their time and money to help his campaign. The problem is that Obama's most vocal supporters are significantly over-represented in the US media space: namely, politically active liberals and young people.

This isn't a conservative point; it is just a fact. This is the most media-oriented and involved American youth of all time. As for liberals, caring about what's in the news and wanting to express one's opinions in the public sphere are quintessential liberal traits. Recognising these two facts might have made commentators more cautious about predicting an electoral realignment. Over time, Obama has become more and more unpopular. Therefore, unless he finds a better way of connecting with the American people, or the economy improves, tough times lie ahead for Obama.

Brendon O'Connor is associate professor in American politics at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.