Too Soon to Know If Obama Can Bounce Back

President Obama plays basketball during the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House tennis court April 1, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Nov. 25, 2013, 12:54 p.m.

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 Health­ 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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