Hardly Finished

The Obama Political Obituaries Are Way Premature

It’s been a messy year, but let’s not him pair him with Nixon just yet. Obama isn’t even as bad off as Bush was after his Social Security debacle—and nothing rules out a rally in 2014.

Pool photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick

If President Obama saw the columns and news stories I keep reading lately, he’d probably have half a mind to resign and scurry back to Chicago in time to see the Bears lose a playoff game. “Tanking” approval numbers, no accomplishments, rudderlessness, and of course the website fiasco; they all add up, the conventional wisdom seems to say, to a presidency that is already all but finished, unless John Podesta can somehow save it. The Washington Post reported this week that among second-term presidents in the polling era, only Richard Nixon had a lower approval rating at this point than Obama does now.

Nixon? Is it really that bad? (By the way, there’s still a considerable distance between the two—Obama sits at 43 percent in the Post poll, while Nixon was down at 29.) I can read numbers, and I know what’s happened over the past year. Obama has lost support among core Democratic groups such as women and Latinos, and one suspects that the failure—not his failure; the failure, a distinction not enough people are evidently making—to pass immigration reform was disillusioning for these cohorts. And obviously the HealthCare.gov fiasco is the governing reality here. It’s been a messy year.

At the same time, everything that’s happened can be rebounded from. Let’s look, by way of comparison, at where President Bush was at the end of 2005. He’d started out the year, you might recall, saying, “I have political capital, and I intend to use it.” Actually, he said that right after he beat John Kerry. Bush didn’t yet reveal how he meant to use that capital, but soon enough it became clear that he meant Social Security privatization, or partial privatization.

Bush staked a lot on that project. If you were around then, you remember those endless town halls, filled with plants and ringers offering their most plangent testimonials about how they couldn’t wait to get Uncle Sam’s heavy hand out of their purses and invest their own retirement money as they saw fit, as any real Murican would insist. This was how Bush and Karl Rove were going to create the permanent Republican majority, through the new ownership society.

What happened? Congress, even Republicans in Congress, wanted nothing to do with it. It was basically dead by Memorial Day. So that was going to be the signature issue of Bush’s second term—with a House and a Senate, remember, that were also in Republican hands at the time. And it went up in flames.

Nothing that has happened to Obama in 2013 is nearly as humiliating as what Bush endured—and that was before Katrina hit in August 2005. You could make an immigration comparison, but they’re hardly the same, because Bush’s party controlled both houses of Congress. If the Democrats were running the House right now, there’s little question the immigration bill would have passed. I don’t expect the general public to make such distinctions, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make them. Being smacked down by the opposite party, which has shown its contempt for you a hundred times already, isn’t remotely the same thing as being smacked down by your own party. The Bush privatization failure was devastating not only to his standing as president but as head of his own party.

Obama hasn’t suffered anything like that. He’s been the victim of a couple of ginned-up “scandals,” the IRS most especially, that had no truth to them but nevertheless took a bite out of his ratings. The Republicans are a constant irritant, willing to sacrifice their own standing as long as they can drag him down with them. But he has not launched a huge, historic initiative on which history has slammed the sarcophagus lid screaming “Failure!”

Health care? Come on. You’re joking. That was a bad first inning. Granted, a really, really bad first inning, but a first inning all the same. There is a lot of ball yet to be played. Even now, we’re only in the top of the second in terms of implementation of this law. And every week brings new reports that the troubles are of the past. The information that’s supposed to be getting to insurance companies is getting to them now, and providers are about to start advertising heavily to potential enrollees. Jeff Zients, the man who fixed the site, is leaving, but he’s being replaced by a Microsoft exec, Kurt DelBene, who presumably knows a thing or two about state-of-the-art operating systems. I’ve said it before and I will say it again. Obamacare is going to have, for most Americans who come face to face with it, a happy ending, and I think sooner rather than later.

That is the big error the Republicans are making. They truly seem to think it’s game-set-match on Obamacare. It isn’t even close. And the media, espying bad Obama poll numbers, go along, because then, instead of the bad poll numbers being just bad poll numbers, they can be woven into a Meta-Narrative Think Piece about how second terms in the modern presidency are graveyards.

Obama isn’t close to any graveyard yet. The Obamacare story is going to keep getting better. And the economy, if you hadn’t noticed, has grown at 3 percent for the last two quarters. That’s not just good considering the circumstances of the meltdown and an opposition party that’s been trying actively to harm the economy. That’s just plain old good.

Predicting a politician’s standing a year out is a mug’s game, so I won’t do that. But I’ll comfortably make the claim that nothing that has happened to Obama in 2013 rules out a rebound. Far be it from me to question The Washington Post’s poll numbers, but Bush was in far worse shape at this point. Obama’s second term will not likely match the list of accomplishments of his first. But even if the second term is nothing more than the successful implementation of Obamacare for 30 million or 40 million Americans, that’s plenty. Public opinion will catch up.