Can Obama Recover? He Did Already

The problems with HealthCare.gov are real, but the media has declared Obama and his health law dead before — yet they’re both still here.

President-elect Harry S. Truman laughs heartily as he holds an early edition of the Chicago Tribune for November 4, 1948, with the headline "Dewey Defeats Truman." The newspaper, whose headline jumped to an erroneous conclusion as early election returns came in, was shown to Truman as he stopped in St. Louis, Missouri, during his victorious return trip to Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Nov. 25, 2013, 11:37 a.m.

It’s a dark time for Pres­id­ent Obama. His ap­prov­al rat­ings are slid­ing as con­fid­ence wanes in his com­pet­ence and the gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to do any­thing right. His al­lies squirm, his crit­ics circle and lick their chops in an­ti­cip­a­tion of a kill. Na­tion­al news­pa­pers won­der if this is “Obama’s Kat­rina,” even as George W. Bush gets bet­ter marks from the pub­lic than his suc­cessor. The pres­id­ent’s en­tire agenda seems in per­il, thanks to his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­ab­il­ity to tackle a thorny tech­nic­al prob­lem. “It’s a lot like Custer,” a former Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or re­marks. “He un­der­es­tim­ated the num­ber of In­di­ans on the oth­er side of the hill and paid the ul­ti­mate price.” 

I’m talk­ing, of course, of the 2010 BP oil spill. Or per­haps Hur­ricane Sandy. Or maybe the IRS con­tro­versy — dis­asters that seemed sure to doom the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, un­til they sud­denly didn’t. And while the Health­Care.Gov fiasco is worse and more dan­ger­ous polit­ic­ally for the White House than prob­ably any oth­er con­tro­versy — this was an un­forced er­ror on his sig­na­ture le­gis­lat­ive agenda item, not a dis­aster to be cleaned up — it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing in the cyc­lone of a news cycle that it’s easy to lose per­spect­ive and as­sume the cur­rent dy­nam­ic was and al­ways will be.

Obama looks doomed today, but re­mem­ber that just a few weeks ago, it was Re­pub­lic­ans whose ob­it­u­ar­ies were be­ing writ­ten all over cable news and news­pa­per op-ed pages thanks to the party’s brink­man­ship on the gov­ern­ment shut­down. A few weeks be­fore that, it was Obama, again, whose leg­acy was on the line thanks to his botched hand­ling of Syr­ia. Many wondered if the shut­down could cost the GOP con­trol of the House in 2014. Now, just a month later, those losses are gone and its Demo­crats who ap­par­ently risk los­ing con­trol of the Sen­ate.

The ques­tion on every body’s mind is: Can Obama re­cov­er?

It’s the same ques­tion that was put to Larry King’s pan­el in May of 2008 after Rev. Jeremi­ah Wright’s ex­plos­ive ser­mons sur­faced (Obama did re­cov­er from that). And again in Au­gust 2009 when the Los Angeles Times asked, “Can Obama re­cov­er on health care?” as re­form sty­mied in Con­gress (he did, and so did health care re­form). And again after Obama cri­ti­cized the ar­rest of Henry Lewis Gates, when the AP asked, “Can Obama re­cov­er after Gates in­cid­ent?” (He did.) 

It was asked again in Janu­ary 2010 by ed­it­or­i­al boards from Or­lando to Buf­falo after Re­pub­lic­an Scott Brown won a spe­cial elec­tion in Mas­sachu­setts (he did, and so did Obama­care). And again Janu­ary 2011 after Demo­crats got shel­lacked in the 2010 midterm. When Sean Han­nity asked his pan­el in Au­gust, 2011, “Can Obama re­cov­er?” from a sink­ing Dow and oth­er bad eco­nom­ic news, Fox News ana­lyst Peter John­son, Jr. replied, “No, but we need Amer­ica to re­cov­er.” Penny Nance of Con­cerned Wo­men for Amer­ica ad­ded, “I don’t think so. I think he’s done.”

And then it was asked again in June of 2012, after the pres­id­ent had a “hor­rible, no-good’ week.” And then in Oc­to­ber again after Obama’s poor per­form­ance in his first de­bate against Mitt Rom­ney. And then again in Septem­ber of this year after the pres­id­ent faced strong con­gres­sion­al op­pos­i­tion to his planned in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia.

We could play this game with the GOP too. After the 2008 elec­tion, pun­dits wondered if the GOP could ever bounce back. And any­one who wondered how the GOP was pos­sibly go­ing to get out of the mess it cre­ated with the shut­down in Oc­to­ber over­es­tim­ated Obama’s abil­ity to hold onto a lead.

As Ross Douthat has noted, Obama­care has been bur­ied three times. First, there was Scott Brown’s win, when it “seemed fin­ished, doomed, door­nail-dead.” Then there was the Su­preme Court chal­lenge, when a “train wreck” of or­al ar­gu­ments led the New York­er’s Jef­frey Toobin and many oth­ers to de­clare that the law “looks like it’s go­ing to be struck down.” That was the per­vas­ive be­lief un­til the court up­held the law four months later (though CNN and Fox ini­tially — and er­ro­neously — an­nounced that the Court had killed the in­di­vidu­al man­date). And then the third buri­al would be today, when some say the law won’t live to see Elec­tion Day 2014 (it will).

“If you’re feel­ing some déjà vu, there’s a reas­on,” Brendan Nyhan, a Dart­mouth polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist and me­dia crit­ic wrote in his column in the Columbia Journ­al­ism Re­view last week. “Journ­al­ists are fall­ing vic­tim to the same ex­tra­pol­a­tion fal­lacy that per­vades so much polit­ic­al cov­er­age. In these sorts of stor­ies, re­port­ers identi­fy a cur­rent trend and spin out a story in which it con­tin­ues to im­plaus­ible ex­tremes.”

But in real­ity, of course, any shifts in pub­lic opin­ion around spe­cif­ic events are trans­it­ory and lim­ited. Obama re­covered from his dis­astrous Den­ver de­bate and went on to win the 2012 elec­tion; the GOP re­covered from its loss in 2008 and went on to win a his­tor­ic vic­tory in 2010.

Without doubt, Health­Care.Gov‘s dangers to Obama, Demo­crats, and the en­tire lib­er­al agenda are real. But just as real a pos­sib­il­ity is that the web­site gets fixed soon­er or later, builds con­fid­ence and users, and we all move on to something else by New Year’s Day. 

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