President Obama was serious when he told Barbara Walters that “the good thing about when you're down is that, usually, you got nowhere to go but up.” He wasn’t kidding, but he sure wasn’t correct.
Second term presidents usually go farther down in their final three years. Sometimes way, way down.
Obama made his chipper assessment of his fortunes at the end of November. He was giving an interview setting up the re-launch of the weeviled online home of his new entitlement program, which, depending on how he is feeling on a given day, is either the Affordable Care Act or ObamaCare.
When Obama was blowing off the questions about his poll numbers, the most recent survey from Walters’ network showed 41 percent of voters approving of the job the he was doing. Now that the weevils have been somewhat reduced, hundreds of thousands of the many millions of Americans who have been forced into the system have (Aetna willing and the data don’t crash) signed up for ObamaCare.
So, how now?
In the ABC News/WaPo poll just out, the president has indeed gone up. By two points. The network offered the hopeful assessment that Obama had seen his number “stabilize.” But not really.
The president saw his numbers actually decline with members of his own party since last month. After spending weeks nuzzling his political base, the president had nothing to show for it but a 76 percent job-approval rating among self-identified Democrats. It was 90 percent a year ago. As Obama again moves left to try to keep his political core intact, he will likely see that number drop more as those beyond core Obamaland, urban centers populated by younger elites, drift away.
Consider this: A year ago, 95 percent of Democrats told pollsters for the Post and ABC News that Obama would do a better job “protecting the middle class” than Republicans in Congress. Now it’s 85 percent. If 15 percent of Democrats don’t pick Obama in that matchup, something has gone terribly wrong.
Obama has reached a signal moment: The end of his fifth year in office, generally the last year of presidential vigor before lame-duck status truly kicks in. The closer a re-elected president’s party gets to expected midterm loses, the less that party wants the old fellow around. And the hurt awaiting Democrats next year would suggest that Obama is well out of time.
So how did Obama fare in the last month of his fifth year? Worse that George W. Bush who spent his fifth year watching Iraq unravel. Worse than every two-term president since the end of World War II, except for Richard Nixon. So there’s that.
Though Obama’s woes are not so far those of Nixon, the root cause is the same: a loss of trustworthiness. Obama’s halting admission of willful deception on his health law in order to win re-election was terrible to watch. The president kept playing for time, but was eventually forced into honesty.
Hampered by the technical failures of his team in establishing his hugely complicated system, Obama was even less able to deliver a convincing reveal of the bait and switch. He had hoped for the Pepsi challenge – “Hey, did you know you actually have been drinking ObamaCare?” but instead got to be the host apologizing for the fat-free bean dip. “If you put a lot of salsa on it, you can hardly taste the higher premiums.”
Having promised a re-launch and then a march forward into success, the president was able to quell the incipient Democratic revolt. But now that we have had another launch and everyone agrees that the bean dip still tastes like gypsum paste, what will Democrats do?
Tuesday was a pretty good indication of what the future holds for Democrats in the age of post-peak Obama. The president’s day and his administration’s energies were consumed by the two broadest scandals of his tenure: the health insurance deception and his broad expansion of government domestic spying powers after he said he would limit them.
As the president sat with his patrons from the tech industry, Americans had reasonable cause to believe that their interests were not much represented. How would those same voters who now think Obama is a bad bet for the middle class feel about the president and the people whose money and technology put him in office talking about the state of America’s personal data? Are the companies protecting their data from the government? Is the government protecting their identities from the marrow-sucking data harvesters of Google, etc.?
A year ago, middle-class Americans might have said that Obama would stick up for them — compromise neither their “values” nor their security. But Obama has been caught in two major deceptions and only stated (some) of his true intentions under duress. It wasn’t that he couldn’t deliver on a promise, but that he told what he apparently believed to be noble lies. He was expanding the surveillance state while speaking out against it. He was enacting rules to disrupt insurance while promising Americans they could keep it.
The president soon will come out with lots and lots of words about remedying a spy system that he expanded. And similarly, each new wave of health care disruption will be covered by a blizzard of paper and pixels.
Each new retreat brings a promise that now, the president’s party can go on offense. But an administration facing enormous, self-made problems that touch every American doesn’t get to pivot to anything. No object is shiny enough to distract the press for very long in the new era.
For two months, Democrats have been jousting with each other about what they ought to be focused on after the whole ObamaCare thing dies down and the whole Edward Snowden deal is over. But this is fantasy.
The reality is creeping in: There is no “after” ObamaCare and the NSA. This is, as Democratic strategists once said about the economy, “the new normal.” Here’s betting they won’t profit nearly so much from these lowered expectations.