The White House Thinks Obama Had a Very Good Year. The Public Isn’t so Sure.

The unemployment rate is down, gas prices and inflation are low, and the president notched some major accomplishments. But Obama remains a polarizing figure, and Americans are feeling insecure.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Dec. 21, 2015, noon

By al­most all tra­di­tion­al met­rics, the White House should be cel­eb­rat­ing his 2015 in­stead of of­fer­ing the sub­dued and meas­ured de­fense seen from Pres­id­ent Obama at his end-of-the-year press con­fer­ence. After all, the usu­al num­bers are good—un­em­ploy­ment rate down, job cre­ation up, in­fla­tion low, GDP up, gas prices de­clin­ing. Only the stock mar­ket, which will end the year slightly down, is in neg­at­ive ter­rit­ory.

To add to a bullish ap­prais­al for the pres­id­ent’s agenda, the year saw him pre­vail on some of his top pri­or­it­ies—pro­tect­ing Obama­care, achiev­ing a nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an, reach­ing an in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate agree­ment, and push­ing through his rap­proche­ment with Cuba. The pres­id­ent can also point to the low­est “Misery In­dex”—adding un­em­ploy­ment with in­fla­tion—since Harry Tru­man was pres­id­ent. The cur­rent 5.3 Misery In­dex would nor­mally guar­an­tee high ap­prov­al.

But these are not nor­mal times and tra­di­tion­al met­rics don’t tell the whole story. In­stead, these are times of wide­spread na­tion­al fear of ter­ror­ism and anxi­ety over the avail­ab­il­ity of good jobs. So the pres­id­ent con­cludes 2015 mired in the polling doldrums, his ap­prov­al rat­ing stuck just about where it was when he star­ted the year. And, with the na­tion even more po­lar­ized than be­fore as it weath­ers a nasty fight to elect the next pres­id­ent, there is no path vis­ible to push Obama’s rat­ings above 50 per­cent.

“It was not a bad year for him un­til Novem­ber when sud­denly everything was pushed off the table by ter­ror­ist at­tacks,” said Bill Schneider, the vet­er­an polit­ic­al ana­lyst who is a pro­fess­or at George Ma­son Uni­versity. “He ac­com­plished cer­tain things, none of them wildly pop­u­lar. But the eco­nomy was def­in­itely im­prov­ing, the stock mar­ket was sta­bil­iz­ing, un­em­ploy­ment was down as much as any­one had hoped for, and the eco­nomy was look­ing good.”

Then came the ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Par­is and San Bern­ardino and a re­ac­tion by the pres­id­ent that even he re­portedly con­ceded to a group of colum­nists failed to cap­ture the na­tion­al crav­ing for re­as­sur­ance and strength. “That is ter­ror­ism,” said Schneider, “and he didn’t seem to be strong. That has pushed everything else off the table. Cli­mate change—who cares? In­equal­ity—who cares?”

Schneider, who has been a cham­pi­on for cent­rists and mod­er­ates in the Demo­crat­ic Party, said Amer­ic­ans yearned for a re­ac­tion sim­il­ar to Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s after the 9/11 at­tacks in 2001. “What many Amer­ic­ans were wait­ing for was for the pres­id­ent to say a very simple ‘Go get ‘em.’ But he’s not a ‘Go get ‘em’ pres­id­ent. … He doesn’t really come across as tough and strong and de­term­ined the way Bush did. That is be­cause of the kind of pres­id­ent he is. He has this style and tem­pera­ment of a pro­fess­or. Ra­tion­al. Calm. And thought­ful.”

At the White House, they hoped that 5 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment, 2 mil­lion new jobs and $2-a-gal­lon gas—down al­most 50 cents from a year ago—could trump that anxi­ety. They also in­sist that their list of ac­com­plish­ments is worthy of ac­claim. White House press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est cited the thaw in U.S.-Cuban re­la­tions, the Par­is cli­mate agree­ment, the Ir­an nuc­le­ar deal, the rising num­bers of those with health in­sur­ance, and the Pa­cific trade pact. “If I’d have read that list off the top at the be­gin­ning of this year. … I don’t think any­body would have thought that was real­ist­ic that we were go­ing to get all of that done, par­tic­u­larly fa­cing new Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­it­ies in the House and Sen­ate.”

Pressed to ex­plain why none of that boos­ted the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al rat­ings, Earn­est sug­ges­ted the at­tack in San Bern­ardino “prob­ably leaves people a little con­cerned, as it should, and that may have a broad­er im­pact on their as­sess­ment of the cur­rent con­di­tion of the coun­try.”

Wil­li­am Gal­ston, Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s chief do­mest­ic policy ad­viser, said he agreed with the check­list of ac­com­plish­ments. “But,” he said, “ob­vi­ously, that is not the way the Amer­ic­an people are keep­ing score right now. And that’s the pres­id­ent’s prob­lem.”

Gal­ston went bey­ond ter­ror­ism to ex­plain Obama’s plight. “People are look­ing for a sig­ni­fic­ant in­crease in wages and in­come and they are look­ing for a sense of se­cur­ity against for­eign threats. And they don’t really think they’ve got­ten either one of those. So the rest of it doesn’t seem to mat­ter that much.”

Gal­ston noted that most of the pres­id­ent’s proudest achieve­ments—Ir­an, the Af­ford­able Care Act, and the cli­mate deal—were forced through with neither Re­pub­lic­an sup­port nor pub­lic ap­prov­al. “If you’re act­ing on your own hook in po­lar­ized times, then you’re not go­ing to per­suade a lot of people on the fence or on the oth­er side that you’re do­ing the right thing. So your job ap­prov­al is not likely to rise.”

Mak­ing it worse for Obama is his of­ten-puzz­ling in­ab­il­ity to grasp the emo­tion­al need to re­as­sure a frightened cit­izenry. “When people are feel­ing scared, it takes a spe­cial art to re­as­sure them. He was ba­sic­ally say­ing you should keep cool the way I’m keep­ing cool,” Gal­ston said. “But if people are feel­ing hot and bothered, telling them to stay cool can some­times make them even more hot and bothered.”

Gal­ston ad­ded, “I think he knows him­self very well. Wheth­er he un­der­stands the people that he’s been lead­ing for al­most sev­en years is a dif­fer­ent ques­tion al­to­geth­er. I think he un­der­stands people who are like him. I don’t think he un­der­stands people who are un­like him par­tic­u­larly well.”

Car­roll Do­herty, dir­ect­or of polit­ic­al re­search at the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, marveled at how little the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al rat­ing moved dur­ing the year. “It has moved two points, from a low of 46 to a high of 48,” he noted, with it end­ing the year at 46, down one from the start of the year. The Real­Clear­Polit­ics av­er­age for Obama is 43.5.

Do­herty said Obama has to fight through gen­er­al dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the dir­ec­tion of the coun­try, fears of ter­ror­ism and con­tinu­ing anxi­ety over in­comes. “People still feel they are fall­ing be­hind. People feel their in­comes haven’t kept up with the cost of liv­ing. … So even though things are sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter from the depths of the re­ces­sion, they still are not all that pos­it­ive.”

He said the cli­mate deal is little help to Obama be­cause it’s “among the most po­lar­iz­ing of all is­sues”—wildly pop­u­lar with Demo­crats, deeply un­pop­u­lar with Re­pub­lic­ans.

All that leaves Obama right where he was at the be­gin­ning of 2015. In his­tor­ic­al terms, he is “between Bush and Clin­ton,” said Do­herty. “Clin­ton was well above 50 per­cent and ap­proach­ing 60 per­cent. Bush was de­clin­ing at this point to the 30 per­cent range. The tra­ject­or­ies were very dif­fer­ent. Obama’s is dif­fer­ent in the sense that his has been so stable.”

The White House re­sponse is to take the long view and ar­gue that it mat­ters more wheth­er what they achieved in 2015 helps Amer­ic­ans a dec­ade from now in­stead of wheth­er it boosts poll num­bers today. “We are much more fo­cused on the work of the Amer­ic­an people than we are on read­ing polls,” said Earn­est. For his part, the pres­id­ent in­sisted that “our steady, per­sist­ent work over the years is pay­ing off for the Amer­ic­an people in big, tan­gible ways.”

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