Despite having his best week this year a few weeks back, Obama remains decidedly out of favor. The contrast between his current successes and his long-term political erosion could not be starker. The real question is: How can Obama be winning so big and still doing so badly?
As June closed, Obama arguably had one of his presidency’s best weeks with big Congressional and Court successes.
In Congress he won trade promotion authority (TPA), which gives trade agreements he negotiates an expedited and protected path through Congress. In the Supreme Court, Obamacare received a crucial verdict allowing continuation of its subsidies, another ruling upholding the administration’s targeting of unintended bias in housing, and a third upholding the constitutionality of gay-marriage.
For an administration less than two years from ending and facing a strong opposition Congress, any positives are welcome. To get them in areas so central to its legacy and its agenda, they are even more so. However, there are good reasons to delay reappraising Obama too quickly.
First, Obama’s “victories” are less than they appear.
In winning trade promotion authority, Obama spent virtually all his political capital and still only got the barest number of Democrats to support him. In return, all he received was fast track authority — something other presidents have routinely held — for a trade agreement he may conclude, not passage of an actual deal. So, he spent heavily to obtain a process, not an outcome.
As for Obama’s other big “win” on Obamacare, the court’s ruling said it was constitutional. Let that sink in for a moment. If ever there was damnation with faint praise, not being unconstitutional is it. And that still does not make it popular, which it decidedly is not.
At the end of the day, Obama’s big “victories” were really avoidances of embarrassing defeats. Perhaps at this stage of his presidency that is all he can hope for, but that is still all he got.
Second, Obama himself is in no less trouble than he was before.
None of Obama’s “victories” addressed the nation’s most pressing problem: the economy. The economy remains the most pressing issue, because the economy remains… depressing, as it has for the better part of Obama’s entire presidency. Even last year’s seeming uptick ran out of gas in 2014’s second half, the economy then reversing in 2015’s first quarter.
His presidency’s biggest accomplishment, Obamacare, has been unpopular since inception and continues to be. It is unpopular, not because of questions over its constitutionality, but because it was poorly conceived, badly drafted, and abysmally implemented.
Further, the administration’s biggest supporters aren’t anymore — at least not like they used to. According to Rasmussen polling released on the day (6/25) of the Supreme Court’s rulings, Obama’s strong approval rating was just 23 percent. That’s virtually the same as 2014’s midterm election level (21 percent) — when Obama’s party lost control of the Senate in another stinging electoral defeat.
Simultaneously, Obama’s strong opponents remain strong. Rasmussen showed Obama’s strong disapproval rating at 41 percent. That too is close to where they were last November (40 percent).
Now weeks later, Obama’s ratings are still essentially the same. According to Rasmussen’s July 20 release, Obama’s strong support is 24 percent and his strong opposition is 42 percent. Obama’s net strong negative rating remains the same before and after his big “wins”: 18 percent.
Finally, most lame duck presidents’ favorite retreat, international policy, has been anything but a safe haven for Obama. If anything, it is his administration’s weakest link — as public opinion bears out. And as details emerge on the just-negotiated Iran deal during congressional debate, foreign policy could become an even weaker link for the administration.
Despite a much needed good week for the administration, Obama is where he was — matching an electoral low point with all his fundamental problems still in place.
It is easy to just see the headline without reading the story. Unquestionably, Obama had some very good headlines; however, today’s headlines do not change the bigger story: Obama’s remains a weak administration with powerful liabilities.
The White House is stuck with an economy it cannot resuscitate and a health plan it cannot rehabilitate. And Obama cannot escape these domestic problems through foreign policy as most lame duck presidents do, because his failures abroad are at even more acute than they are at home.
What really would have changed the Obama story is if these “victories” had not been the averted crises they really were. Defeat could have been fatal to a presidency as precariously balanced as Obama’s.
Despite the momentary respite, Obama’s administration remains just as endangered. It is just a bad headline away from writing a very bad ending to the Obama story.
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