Ohio Governor John Kasich's Tightrope Walk

John Kasich is in a bit of a bind. The Ohio governor is, on the one hand, the tough Republican who tried to bring right-to-work legislation to Ohio and reduce government spending. He's also the guy whose efforts to limit collective bargaining got knocked down by Ohio voters. Partisan divides seem to be growing in the Buckeye State. All of which was likely on his mind when Kasich gave his State of the State address today. The governor opted to give the speech at a school rather than at the state capitol, where it's traditionally given. It wasn't the only unusual choice of the day. He also tried to push for the same types of policies he's always advocated—but package them in moderate verbiage.

For instance, he told the crowd that raising taxes was not an option, because it would hurt business. "It's not just a philosophy or some sort of an ideology," he explained. "It's what makes sense." Except that it is an ideology. Raising certain taxes—or not cutting them further—is hardly about killing business; by providing more money for social programs and education, some liberals can argue that it produces a better workforce. In any case, the impact of taxation is hardly a law of physics. But Kasich opted to cast his anti-tax view not as a partisan move but as an obvious, good-government decision.

More striking was Kasich's decision to say, "You can't cut your way to prosperity." In a conservative stronghold like Texas, that sort of thing can get a Republican lawmaker in hot water—just ask Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus, who faced scathing criticism when he said almost exactly the same phrase. But unlike Straus, Kasich is stuck trying to win over a much more moderate electorate. The Ohio governor pushed for a leaner budget last year to close an $8 billion shortfall, but that wasn't exactly how he chose to cast himself in the speech. "People think I'm this big budget cutter," he said. "I'd rather reform, reshape, and make it work better." But it's not just about making things work better—it's also about making them work cheaper. Kasich, however, didn't mention that.

It's logical that Kasich is trying to move to the center, at least in terms of rhetoric. Last fall was a pretty big slap to the governor's agenda, and since then, voters have hardly warmed to him. The latest polls from Public Policy Polling don't paint a particularly cheerful picture for the governor.

John Kasich's not getting any more popular. 33% of voters approve of him to 53% who disapprove. Only a little more than half of Republicans think he's doing a good job (58/25), while Democrats (9/80) are almost universal in their disapproval. If voters could do the 2010 election over again they'd vote for Ted Strickland by a 20 point margin, 56-36, numbers that not coincidentally track closely with the Senate Bill 5 repeal result from last fall.

It could be worse, though. U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner has the approval of only 28 percent of voters in his home state.