Political Hay

Everything That Rises Must Converge

With Obama’s honeymoon now at an end, his goal to be a transformational liberal leader is in doubt.

By 7.31.09

Everybody knew it would happen at some point.

The moment when the fresh pair of shoes got muddied, when people started to see beyond the façade, and when the curtain was lifted to reveal a tinkerer pulling levers rather than a wonderful wizard.

We are in the midst of that moment.

Back in January, just after President Obama took the oath of office, Gallup found that 68 percent of Americans approved of him, compared to just 12 percent who disapproved. Yet in the past month, those two numbers have been racing toward convergence, and as of Thursday just 52 percent approved of Obama’s handling of his job, compared to 41 percent who disapproved.

The story is the same no matter the poll, and the numbers get worse the deeper one looks into the data. Particularly troubling is that while Democrats continue to give Obama high marks, he’s losing the independents, according a poll released on Thursday by the Pew Research Center, which showed his support among the group dipping to 48 percent.

There were many points when candidate Obama looked like he was on the ropes, only to bounce back. But there are significant differences between a campaign and a presidency.

No matter how bad things got during the campaign, Obama could exploit frustration with George Bush, and employ the rhetoric of hope and change. But it’s hard to point fingers when you’re running the show.

Not that this has stopped him from trying. During last week’s prime time news conference, Obama reiterated that he inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit. And in desperate search for a foil, he used comments by Sen. Jim DeMint and Bill Kristol to argue that Republicans were blocking health care legislation. Given that Obama’s budget adds an estimated $9.3 trillion to the deficit over 10 years and that Democrats’ majorities in Congress are so large that they could pass anything without a single Republican vote, neither argument has gained any traction.

Pew found that a minority of 42 percent approve of Obama’s handling of health care; just 38 percent approve of his stewardship of the economy; and a mere 32 percent like the way he is handling the budget deficit.

At times, Obama has slipped back into the role of the consummate analyst, diagnosing the nation’s condition as if he were an outsider who has no power to change anything. “[W]e've just become so cynical about what government can accomplish,” he said during the news conference, falling back on a tired old campaign theme that he’s employed since his days as a state senator. He added, “[F]olks are skeptical, and that is entirely legitimate because they haven't seen a lot of laws coming out of Washington lately that help them.”  Apparently, he forgot that he’s been responsible for signing all of those laws.

During the campaign, Obama the salesman could convince people that he would provide everybody with a brand new luxury car for the price of an old jalopy. But after selling the American people a $787 billion stimulus package that has failed to create promised jobs, they aren’t buying his health care proposals.

After months of White House events, speeches, town hall meetings, and news conferences touting Democratic health care proposals, support for health care plans currently being discussed has cratered to 38 percent, while 44 percent now oppose them, according to Pew.

While Obama is known as a talented communicator, it turns out that the more people hear about the health care plans, the more fiercely they oppose them, and this is true even if you remove Republicans from the equation. Among independents who said they’ve heard little or nothing about health care legislation, just 35 percent opposed; but among those who said they’ve heard a lot about the proposals, opposition doubled, to 70 percent.

To be sure, just because Obama’s approval ratings have come back down to earth, it doesn’t mean he’s doomed, as polls are bound to fluctuate over the course of a presidency. But the key question confronting Obama’s presidency has been: Will he prove a complete disaster like Jimmy Carter, a politically successful president who fails to meaningfully advance liberalism like Bill Clinton, or a transformational liberal leader in the mold of Franklin D. Roosevelt?

The problem for Obama is that economic news is likely to be mostly bad over the next several months, suggesting continued downward pressure on his approval ratings in the near term. And it’s just during this time period that health care legislation will be moving through Congress. If he fails to get a health care bill passed this year, his odds of ever doing so decrease dramatically. Next year is an election year, and after the 2010 midterms, Republicans are likely to gain more power to block his agenda.

While public perception of Obama will go up and down for the rest of his time in office, the next few months will largely determine whether he’ll remake the nation in his image. No wonder he’s in such a rush.

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About the Author

Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein