Most of the Beltway brahmin are telling President Obama that, in the aftermath of the midterm elections, he can only improve his popularity by moving to the right in order to capture the mythical center. However, looking at the polling data, it seems that might not theoretically be possible. From CNN polling via Jed Lewison at DailyKos:

Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president?
(IF DISAPPROVE) Do you disapprove because you think his policies and actions since he became  president have been too liberal, or because you think his policies and actions have not been liberal enough?

Approve (from question 1) 48%
Disapprove, too liberal 38%
Disapprove, not liberal enough 9%
Disapprove, unsure 3%
No opinion 3%

As you can see there exist a substantial number of individuals who disapprove of Obama’s job performance because he has not pursued many of his liberal promises. This liberal opposition accounts for 18 percent of all disapproval.

For there to be a net political gain from Obama moving ideologically to the right, the amount of support he gains from those who think he is too liberal would need to be greater than the support he would lose to the “not liberal enough” camp. As we can see from the poll, there is a real potential danger of increasing the already large liberal opposition.

How much room is there to grow on the right?

Obama probably does have much room to grow among those who think he is too liberal. He only won 53 percent of the vote in 2008, while currently about 40 percent of Americans identify themselves as Conservative. After only one month in office his approval rating was 59 percent, barely more than the 57 percent who disapproved or thought he was not liberal enough.

Given the partisan breakdown of this country, it is probably impossible that Obama (or any modern presidential candidate) could do better than Richard Nixon, who in 1972 got 60.7 percent of the vote. I think that getting only 40 percent of the country to vote for a more conservative presidential candidate in 2012 is probably the theoretical limit for the best Obama could achieve.

This 38 percent of the country that disapproves of Obama for being too liberal likely is almost all die-hard Republicans. Even if Obama could improve his support among them, the benefit would be pretty small because they would likely vote for their own party’s candidate anyway.

At most, it would be hard to imagine how any rightward movement would gain Obama more than a few percent from those who disapprove of his job performance for not being conservative enough.

How damaging is liberal opposition?

Moving hard to the right to gain even a few percentage points still makes political sense as long as increasing the number of Americans who disapprove of Obama for not being liberal enough has no political ramifications. While it is true that this liberal opposition is unlikely to vote for a Republican in 2012, they can still hurt Obama’s reelection chances by voting for a third-party candidate or by just staying home. In 2000, Ralph Nader won 2.7 percent of the vote. In the 2010 election, young people, who heavily lean toward Obama and Democrats, didn’t turn out in the numbers they had two years prior.

Even if this liberal opposition holds its nose and votes for Obama, their unhappiness can still be politically damaging if it translates into a loss in grassroots donations and campaign volunteers.

Which is easier, winning back liberals or flipping conservatives?

I assume the goal of the White House political team is to get Obama’s job approval rating back in the mid- to upper-50s. If they can achieve that, they stand a very good chance of winning in 2012. They can get there by either winning back liberals while holding everyone they currently have, or by trying to flip conservatives while also holding everyone they currently have.

While I admit there is probably the potential to flip some of Obama’s conservative opposition if he moves dramatically to the right, the room to grow there appears pretty small. It also seems like a very difficult task while preventing any more liberal defections.

Winning back disaffected liberals seems like a much easier task. If most oppose Obama for not pushing for gay marriage or gun control, it would be probably be difficult win them back without alienating some of his current support, but I doubt that is the case. Many of liberals’ top goals, such as ending DADT, a public option, drug re-importation, extending unemployment insurance, and mortgage cram-down are broadly popular low hanging fruit.  Achieving them–or even just really fighting for them–should be enough to bring a majority of the liberal opposition back around, while unlikely to alienate moderate supporters. Doing that alone would move Obama’s job approval numbers north of 50 percent.

Go popular, not to the right

Many are advising Obama to become more conservative purely for the sake of being more conservative.  When we look at the data, it is hard to see how that improves his approval numbers given that the 38 percent who oppose him for being too liberal are probably almost all Republicans who will vote against him anyway. There just isn’t much room to grow on the right.

It would seem the logical thing to do is just push for broadly popular action that can rally his entire 2008 coalition to support him again. Obama won in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote, so to get re-elected he doesn’t need to try gain any conservative voters. He just needs to make sure he holds on to most of what he had.