Is Obama a ‘Reverse Reagan’?

The president’s policies are more popular than he is — which means this time, it’s personal.

US President Barack Obama is accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden as he delivers a statement on the Affordable Care Act at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 1, 2014. Obama cheered seven million people who signed up for insurance under his health care law, and lashed out at political foes who he said were bent on denying care to Americans. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad 
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James Oliphant
April 3, 2014, 5 p.m.

The pres­id­ent couldn’t res­ist spik­ing the foot­ball over the Af­ford­able Care Act. “Many of the tall tales that have been told about this law have been de­bunked. There are still no death pan­els,” he crowed in the Rose Garden this week. “Armaged­don has not ar­rived.”

After all the neg­at­ive drum-beat­ing about Obama­care, it’s tempt­ing now for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to taunt the Sarah Pal­ins and Mitch Mc­Con­nells of the world — and, yes, the news me­dia, too. The White House has been star­ing in­to the Mouth of Hell for months as the law’s im­ple­ment­a­tion woes dragged down Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing and threatened his second-term agenda. With the an­nounce­ment that more than 7 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans have signed up for health in­sur­ance, it might feel like the long Obama­care winter is fi­nally over. The sun is shin­ing, birds are chirp­ing. You can al­most see Ju­lie An­drews spin­ning around in the Alps.

“The pres­id­ent is on an up­swing,” said Mi­chael Feld­man, a Demo­crat­ic strategist and former Clin­ton White House aide. “Polit­ics is about im­pact mo­ments, and reach­ing that goal was an im­port­ant im­pact mo­ment.”

Give the White House that mo­ment. And then, it may be time for Demo­crats to shut up about it — even if Re­pub­lic­ans won’t.

The most im­me­di­ate be­ne­fit of reach­ing the en­roll­ment mark may be that it al­lows the pres­id­ent and his seni­or aides to take a breath and move on — and maybe the me­dia and the pub­lic will do the same. As the March 31 dead­line for en­rolling ap­proached, the drip-drip cov­er­age be­came ag­on­iz­ingly in­cre­ment­al, like the last few hours of a Jerry Lewis telethon: Was the web­site up or down? Was the cur­rent total 6 mil­lion, 6.2, 6.5? With Rus­si­an troops massed on the Ukrain­i­an bor­der and Middle East peace talks in jeop­ardy, the at­ten­tion, with its fo­cus on a co­hort of people that roughly matches the pop­u­la­tion of metro Dal­las, felt re­duct­ive.

The res­pite also al­lows Obama’s deep thinkers to sit back and sur­vey the polit­ic­al dam­age that has been done. And they’ll find that the land­scape is charred. The pres­id­ent re­mains mired in a second-term mal­aise. A Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll re­leased this week showed Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing locked at 42 per­cent, which came on the heels of an As­so­ci­ated Press/GfK poll last week that had him at 39 per­cent, with 59 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans dis­ap­prov­ing of his per­form­ance.

This ad­min­is­tra­tion has seen low num­bers be­fore. What’s strik­ing this time around are the low marks the pres­id­ent has been get­ting on for­eign policy, the low­est of his pres­id­ency. The Quin­nipi­ac poll found that just 39 per­cent of those sur­veyed gave him good marks, while the AP poll had him at 40. And, ac­cord­ing to a Gal­lup Poll in Feb­ru­ary, the num­ber of Amer­ic­ans who be­lieve Obama is re­spec­ted on the world stage dropped pre­cip­it­ously in 2013 — down to 41 per­cent.

The neg­at­iv­ity comes even as sur­veys found that a strong ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans ap­proved of Obama’s policy ap­proach to­ward Rus­sia, where he has im­posed eco­nom­ic sanc­tions in a bid to force ne­go­ti­ations. And as the pub­lic is feel­ing ever-so-slightly more re­as­sured about the eco­nomy. Moreover, a large swath of voters agrees with the pres­id­ent on such di­verse is­sues as im­mig­ra­tion, the min­im­um wage and same-sex mar­riage. But, still, the needle isn’t mov­ing.

That means with Obama, it’s in­creas­ingly be­com­ing per­son­al. George Ed­wards, an ex­pert on pres­id­ents and pub­lic opin­ion at Texas A&M Uni­versity, says that Obama has be­come, in a sense, a Re­verse Re­agan. Pres­id­ent Re­agan’s policy views were seen at the time as out of step with the main­stream, but he tran­scen­ded that. “When Re­agan ran for reelec­tion against Wal­ter Mondale, Mondale won on most of the is­sues. What trumped all of that was that Re­agan was viewed as a strong, com­pet­ent lead­er,” Ed­wards said.

By con­trast, Obama re­mains earth­bound, pinned down es­pe­cially by his waff­ling on Syr­ia last year and the ACA’s botched rol­lout, both of which, Ed­wards said, ad­ded to “creep­ing ques­tions about the pres­id­ent’s com­pet­ence.”

The good health care news this week might help abate some of those con­cerns, but Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Bill McIn­turff says not to ex­pect too much of a jump in the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al rat­ing. Obama, he said, might re­gain some sup­port from Demo­crats who were dis­il­lu­sioned with the ACA. But McIn­turff still ex­pects Obama to be a “ma­jor drag on the party” head­ing in­to this fall’s midterms.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t things the White House can do to get out from un­der it all, al­though it’s un­likely the pres­id­ent will ever sniff 50 per­cent ap­prov­al again. For one thing, McIn­turff noted, talk­ing about health care is good only for fir­ing up the Demo­crat­ic base. Few oth­ers stand to be con­ver­ted.

That’s be­cause, adds Frank New­port, ed­it­or in chief of Gal­lup, most view the law through a polit­ic­al prism, not in terms of so­ci­et­al be­ne­fits. “I’m sure the White House doesn’t like that,” New­port said. But to many, he said, the con­stant bick­er­ing over health care is “a dis­trac­tion to what they think the pres­id­ent should be fo­cused on — the eco­nomy and jobs.”

Don Baer, a seni­or aide in the Clin­ton White House, agrees. “They need a con­sist­ent and per­sist­ent fo­cus on things that they are do­ing to help the middle class, and to help drive a new sense of op­por­tun­ity and growth in the eco­nomy,” said Baer, now CEO of PR gi­ant Burson-Marsteller.

As if on cue, Obama left Wash­ing­ton the day after his Rose Garden vic­tory lap to fly to Michigan to tout a pro­posed min­im­um-wage hike. And while the White House looks to turn the page, that’s all it can do. There’s no go­ing back now — no such thing as a re­boot at this late date in this pres­id­ency.

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