Obama and the Next 24 Months

Obama approval rating
U.S. President Barack Obama enters the Oval Office of the White House upon his return from a Democratic Party fundraiser at the home of Senator Jay Rockefeller in Washington October 23, 2014. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Forget 2008: The heady, dream-like election, amidst a terrifying contraction in the economy—the one that put the first African-American in the presidency and led more than a million well-wishers to attend his inauguration.

More recently, in 2012, just 23 months ago, Obama won a substantial re-election, carrying almost all the battleground states. Unlike Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—the two other two-term presidents since 1960—Obama became the first president since Dwight D. Eisenhower to be elected twice with more than 51 percent of the vote.

No wonder Obama sounded confident on election night from the podium in Chicago: "I return to the White House more determined and more inspired than ever about the work there is to do and the future that lies ahead."

That was then, as they say. Today, most Americans disapprove Obama's performance.

Some of the fault surely lies with his opposition. Ornery Republicans have blocked him at every turn, often using the once-exotic Senate filibuster to stop his measures from getting a vote.

But it isn't just Republicans who are exasperated. Even Democratic allies have chided him on foreign policy woes, like our uncertain stance towards Vladimir Putin's expansionist Russia and the terrifying beheaders of the Islamic State, better known as ISIS. Indeed, ISIS's footprints are firmly implanted in Iraq, where Obama had, "Mission Accomplished"-style, declared our work done, and in Syria, where he once declined to arm so-called moderates and is now giving them grenades as fast as he can.

The president's approval rating is averaging around 40 percent in this quarter, the lowest of his presidency. That masks regional differences; his popularity hasn't fallen as much in some large, reliably Democratic states like, say, California.

Still "it's not a collapse," says Dr. Frank Newport editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. "It's better than George W. Bush at this point, but not as high as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan." The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll has two-thirds of respondents saying the country is on the wrong track. Fully 76 percent said their economic circumstances are worse or the same since Obama took office in 2009.

If that wasn't bad enough for Obama, his ratings on combating terrorism have fallen and "that should be a source of concern" for the White House, says Gary Langer, who conducted the poll, because it cut into the Democrats' lead among women, as it did in 2002 and 2004 with its rise of Security Moms.

To be fair, numbers are lousy for Republicans, too, and the whole enterprise of government. In August, Gallup found only 19 percent of Americans satisfied with the federal government, the lowest figure ever, including during the Watergate scandal.

Some question whether popularity matters. Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, argues in Rolling Stone that polls are best ignored because they shift less than they used to; thanks to increased partisanship there are fewer persuadable voters. But popularity is an asset. No president wants to be unwelcome at his party's convention, as George W. Bush was in 2008.

The real question is not whether Obama's plunge is important. It's why Obama fell in the first place. What caused the slide? Does it mean he's marginalized for the remainder of his term? The answer is important because it tells us a lot not only about the 24 months ahead but also how politics works in America.

First, it's worth noting that Obama's popularity isn't that low by historical standards. Approval in the 40s is pretty common for presidents. The Bushes, Reagan and Clinton all hit that mark. The real disasters come when the president gets into the 30s, because it means that they've not only hemorrhaged Independent voters and those of the opposition party, but also of their own party. The fall for Obama has taken him from 53 at the time of his reelection to the 40s. It's been downward — but not dramatically so.

Second, keep in mind that most presidents tend to get their hat handed to them in their sixth year. George W. Bush was at 40 percent approval when Republicans lost control of the House and Senate in the 2006 midterms. By the time he left office, amidst the financial crisis, he was down to 23 percent due to war fatigue in Iraq, a slowing economy and the botched federal response to the Katrina Hurricane.

"We really came across as having blown [Katrina] — and the picture of him flying over. We didn't shine there," says Jan Van Lohuizen, George W. Bush's pollster. There are exceptions, though. Clinton benefited when the Republicans notoriously over-reached in their attempts to impeach him.

So, if Obama's sixth year woes aren't unprecedented, why are Democratic candidates treating him like a pariah?

Causation is one of the hardest things for social scientists and politicos and pollsters to determine. Sometimes there are clear causes for a president's immense popularity and unpopularity, such as the surge in George W, Bush's popularity because of the galvanizing tragedy of 9/11, or the Watergate scandal that did in Richard Nixon. The rest of the time, though, it's harder to parse what sent a president's approval ratings south.

In the case of Obama, the many events that combined in the past six months — a perfect storm. if you will excuse that hackneyed metaphor— is often assigned blame for his fall from grace. This includes American helplessness as Russia snapped up Crimea and sought suzerainty over the rest of Ukraine. And the shooting down of Malaysian Air flight MH17 over Ukraine—killing a prominent American AIDS researcher and everyone aboard—as well as the precipitous rise of ISIS and the return of U.S. warriors to Iraq. Then came the government's hesitant reaction to the Ebola outbreak.

All of this, the thinking goes, created a sense of chaos and the perception—perhaps justified—that Obama was not only incapable of ameliorating these woes but actually was contributing to them. The president's declaration of a red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and then a retreat from same, surely didn't help. "He's gone from being a rock star to the guy at the pub singing in the corner," says Matt Schlapp, who was political director in the George W. Bush White House and is now the chair of the American Conservative Union.

But, according to pollsters, it's not the recent hailstorm of trouble that got Obama in this mess. Many still put the blame on the economy and health care. That's a paradox, because both got demonstrably better just as Obama's standing in the polls continued to slide.

After all, the violent economic contractions of 2009 have given way to better news. Unemployment is under 6 percent. It's true that that figure is less than anyone wants, and other key economic indicators, such as the percentage of adults in the labor force, remains disturbingly low. But the bottom line is that the economy is getting better.

The same is true of the president's health care plan. Critics are right to note that premiums may soar when the rest of the plan takes effect, like the employer mandate that mandates businesses with 50 or more persons to help provide their employees with health insurance. And Obama certainly misled the country when he said that if you like your current health insurance plan you can keep it. (In fact, you could only keep it if it met standards of care and cost laid down in Washington.)

Obamacare may yet prove to be the mess its opponents say it will be. But thus far it has not been the catastrophe many predicted. Yes, the website rollout was a disastrous, humiliating moment for the administration. But in the months since then the uninsured rolls have dropped by to the lowest levels since 1997.

But this achievement isn't translating into popularity. According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the Affordable Care Act is becoming more and not less unpopular—with a majority of Americans having an unfavorable view of the landmark law.

In the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished category, Arkansas and Kentucky are the two states that have seen the greatest drop in the uninsured. But Obama's approval rate in those two mid-South states remains under one-third.

So on two of the biggest issues out there—the economy and health care—there is demonstrably good news. Why, then, is Obama suffering?

The issue is not so much improvements in the economy and the health care system as in the breadth and pace of improvement. Most Americans aren't feeling the economy's quickened pulse because wages have remained stagnant while some key costs, like higher education, have continues to soar.

There's also the problem of expectations. As veterans of George H.W. Bush's administration are quick to remind everyone, the economy was improving in 1991 and 1992 as the president—who'd been seen as invulnerable following the first Gulf War—watched his popularity drop. Indeed, the economy that entered recession in 1990 was out of it by 1991, causing Bush, like Obama, to tout progress and urge the country to stay the course. That gambit didn't work.

So, if most Americans don't feel the effects of the economic recovery, that sets up a dynamic of rising expectations. Historians say it's often true of revolutions, such as the French and the American, that they take place not as people became poorer but as living standards improved but not at a fast enough rate. It's sluggish improvement that provokes anger more than tumbling despair.

Is there a way out of this mess for President Obama? Maybe. And the example comes from Ronald Reagan, whose sixth-year midterms bear some striking similarities to what Obama is likely to encounter. Reagan was much more popular than Obama, but his numbers were starting to fall because of the Iran Contra scandal.

On election day, 1986, Republicans lost seven Senate seats, handing control of the chamber to the Democrats and seeing the election of two future majority leaders from GOP states, Harry Reid of Nevada and Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Virtually all of the freshman conservatives who had come into office on Reagan's coat-tails in 1980 had been wiped out in a single night. The House already had a huge Democratic majority, so Reagan faced an ugly landscape.

Reagan's reaction was a dramatic mid-course correction. First, he brought in a new team. The Gipper had always had a good number of outsiders in his inner circle, but this time he made way for a new entourage, including Colin Powell.

"For a time the president not only looked like a lame duck but a dead duck," recalls Ken Duberstein, Reagan's last chief of staff. He notes that the new team, particularly in foreign affairs, was what Reagan needed going into the era when he needed to negotiate with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The result was a dramatic arms control treaty with the Soviets, as well as important trade agreements. Even in the contentious area of domestic policy, Reagan was able to pass significant welfare reform, despite a Democratic Senate that was wary of it. For good measure, Reagan also got the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy by wide margins and prompt passage of all 13 appropriations bills that drive the government. He left office with high approval ratings.

To be fair, Obama faces a far more fiercely partisan atmosphere. But there are possible areas of agreement with Republicans. Paradoxically, the president may be better off if the GOP captures the Senate; in that case Republicans can't afford to be seen as incapable of sending bills to the president's desk.

Whichever way the Senate goes, elements of immigration reform might be possible. And the same goes for movement on the Trade Promotion Authority, which speeds up the signing and ratification of treaties.

Massive tax reform measures, including taxes on individuals, seems like too daunting a project for Congress, but there's a wide consensus on reforming corporate taxes. The key is movement. "The public sees a lack of progress on any issue," says Republican pollster David Winston, noting that the coincidence of the ISIS and Ebola and Ukraine crises were perceived by Americans as yet more examples of Washington not "solving anything and mounting frustration."
It calls to mind Franklin Roosevelt, who said, "The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

It's a policy FDR stuck with even after losing 72 House seats in the midterms in the sixth year of his presidency. The New Deal was stymied, but Roosevelt's presidency wasn't as he slowly prepared the country for war.

He recalibrated his goals and just kept trying. It was a good tactic then—and now.