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Too Soon to Know If Obama Can Bounce Back Too Soon to Know If Obama Can Bounce Back

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Off to the Races

Too Soon to Know If Obama Can Bounce Back

(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

photo of Charlie Cook
November 25, 2013

Hardly a day or two goes by that a new poll isn't released showing President Obama with the lowest job-approval rating of his presidency.

Of the major independent media polls using live interviewers, Obama's highest recent approval ratings were 42 percent in the ABC News/Washington Post and NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls, with disapproval ratings of 55 and 51 percent, respectively. The lowest ratings among national adults were from CBS News and Fox News, where his approval ratings were at 37 and 40 percent, respectively, along with disapproval ratings of 57 and 55 percent. In between were three 41 percent polls, from CNN, Gallup, and Pew Research; disapprovals were 56, 52, and 53 percent, respectively. Obviously there isn't a lot of disagreement between the various polls: The approvals average 41 percent and disapprovals 54 percent.

Democrats and Obama-backers protest loudly when any comparisons are drawn between the debacle surrounding the launch and first impressions of the Affordable Care Act and President George W. Bush's presidential nadir, Hurricane Katrina. Of course, there are big differences between the two presidential stumbles, but similarly, in each case, public confidence in that president was seriously eroded, and questions about the administrations' core competence and honesty became highly prevalent.

 

Of course, U.S. presidents often say or do things that the public disagrees with or disapproves of; that's part of being an elected official. However, when voter confidence erodes, and when voters start questioning the competence and honesty of the president, that ground is very hard to regain. In Bush's case, his approval rating just before his handling of Katrina became so broadly criticized was at 46 percent in a Sept. 8-11, 2005, Gallup Poll. His approval never exceeded 45 percent again during the remaining 40 months of his presidency. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was gradually forgotten, but the damage to the public's confidence in Bush was never completely repaired.

How much resiliency Obama will have in the face of his current problems is obviously unknowable, and to a certain extent, will be dependent upon how fast the HealthCare.gov website is fixed and the extent to which other, more systemic problems are either resolved or addressed.

One critical problem is that the administration and backers of the ACA have never effectively drawn a connection in people's minds between the element they favor the most—that is, not allowing preexisting medical conditions to affect their health insurance rates and coverage—and mandatory/universal coverage, the most despised part of the law. Mandatory coverage brings into the system the young and the healthy, and more importantly, the premiums they pay, which in turn allow and pay for coverage for those with preexisting conditions. That nexus, that trade-off, does not seem to have ever been successfully connected in people's minds. Unless or until this disconnect is addressed, public acceptance of the ACA and approval of its sponsor will never be achieved.

A Nov. 18-20 poll for CNN by the Opinion Research Corporation tested whether respondents thought each of nine characteristics applied to Obama. His strongest marks were "is likeable" (71 percent said the quality applied, while 29 percent said it did not) and "has a vision for the country's future," (60 percent said it applied, 40 percent said it did not). Next, "cares about people like you" (52 percent said it applied, 48 percent said it did not), was followed by "is a strong and decisive leader," and "is honest and trustworthy" (each had 46 percent apply, 53 percent did not apply). Near the worst of Obama's ratings were "inspires confidence," "generally agrees with you on issues you care about," and "is a person you admire" (each garnering 44 percent saying the quality applied to the president, and 56 percent said it did not). Rock-bottom was "can manage the government effectively," with just 40 percent saying that the characteristic applies, and a whopping 60 percent saying that it doesn't.

While all of these characteristics are not equally important, being upside down in six out of nine certainly looks awful. The two sets of responses where the president fared the worst—"inspires confidence" and "can manage the government effectively"—are most concerning, while on top of that, poor marks in "is honest" and "is a strong and decisive leader" are also something that would cause me alarm if I were on the White House payroll.

One of the mistakes in politics most often committed is assuming that a situation and circumstances are static, that whatever people think now will remain the same indefinitely. Those who are declaring this a permanent mar on Obama's presidency are surely risking that offense. On the other hand, another mistake is shrugging off problems and assuming that subsequent events will erase the memories of that which was unpopular. Just as Bush and his colleagues hoped and prayed that Katrina would be forgotten or forgiven—neither of which happened—our current president would like a mulligan on the Obamacare launch.

At this point, we just have to watch and wait to see if this administration can, and does, repair the damage.

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