Can Obama dig himself out after the Obamacare plummet?

It may yet turn out to be the historic achievement its supporters hope for. But so far Obamacare has only succeeded in reducing Barack Obama's popularity to the historic lows of George W. Bush. How will that affect the rest of his term, Neil Macdonald asks.

President's popularity is at almost historic, George W. Bush-level lows

Barack Obama uses a range finder to find the distance to the green at the Mid Pacific Country Club in Kailua, Hawaii, on Wednesday. If only the presidency came with the same gizmos. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

It would probably be difficult, outside San Francisco, to find a more doggedly liberal place in America than the Washington suburb of Bethesda.

People there are affluent, and more educated than in any other U.S. city of comparable size: the vast majority have university diplomas, and half of them hold master's degrees or Ph.Ds.

The place is an absolute hive of Toyota Priuses and artisanal shops. And the very name Bethesda has, for many U.S. conservatives, come to stand for all they hold in contempt: elitist, climate-change-believing, gun-restricting, abortion-allowing, anti-hunting (the place crawls with white-tailed deer), pro-big-government Obama-lovers.

Yet, at the moment, Barack Obama is clearly losing Bethesda. Just as he is losing the rest of America as his fifth year in office draws to a close.

In Bethesda's salons, the Obama name provokes wrinkled noses and frowns of disappointment.

A hard-core Bethesda-ite I know, a Harvard-educated lawyer who believes redistribution of income buys social peace, grimaced over dinner a few weeks ago when the president's name came up.

"He's a disappointment," he said flatly. "He's not a great president."

Understand, this man voted for Obama, and was never so happy as he was to see the George W. Bush era come to its rather ignominious end in 2008.

He was too smart to really buy into Obama's gauzy hope-will-triumph election message in 2008, but he desperately wanted to believe an intellectual was entering the White House and would transform the way America is governed.

But now? Thud.

Does anyone remember hope-and-change and yes-we-can, and rock-star rallies and blazing popularity numbers?

Well, Obama's Gallup popularity rating hit 38 per cent in October, an all-time low for him. He's revisited that number several times since.

By contrast, Bill Clinton was at 60 per cent approval at the same point in his presidency. Ronald Reagan was at 64.

Thirty-eight per cent was where George W. Bush was wallowing in 2005 as it became clear his foreign wars were going to last much longer than anyone had anticipated.

Obama's Iraq

The difference, of course, is that Obama managed to go that low without invading Iraq on a false pretense and unleashing a civil war that consumed the lives of thousands of American soldiers and many, many more Iraqis.

Obama's Iraq, so to speak, was Obamacare, that first-term systemic reform of U.S. health care, passed in the glorious afterglow of hope and change, which is only now starting to roll out.

George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" banner in 2003 was really only the beginning of the end of his pre-war popularity. Obamacare has brought the current president to these same lows. (Reuters)

Actually, Obamacare is potentially much more politically destructive than the Iraq War was for his predecessor, because it affects most American voters where they live.

And while it is too early to call Obamacare a failure, its rollout certainly was.

The sign-up website stunk. Americans were told they could keep their old health-care plans if they liked them, and discovered they were lied to. Many people expecting lower premiums ended up with higher ones.

Peter Morici, a conservative economist at the University of Maryland, says it is probably too early to judge Obama's entire presidency, but contends that his "economic stewardship has been poor.

"As I run the numbers, neither Bush nor Obama were particularly successful."

A bad year

But it wasn't just Obamacare that turned the president's fortunes around.

After a year of stern warnings to the regime in Syria about crossing "a red line" if it used chemical weapons, Obama dithered when it became clear over the summer that Damascus had done exactly that, repeatedly.

Again, it's too early to pronounce his Syria strategy, such as it was, a failure.

Obama finally did get tough and prepared to attack, which forced the Syrians to negotiate and agree to give up their chemical arsenal, allowing Obama, to declare a foreign policy victory.

Though he came off looking weak, then outmanoeuvered.

Bashar al-Assad got to keep his army and air force, with which he's killed more than 100,000 of his own people, and which he is still vigorously deploying. Even Russia's Vladimir Putin couldn't resist piling on, with an op-ed in the New York Times mocking Obama.

It's also too early to make a sensible judgment about Obama's deal with the Iranians, although Israel's prime minister (and the Saudis) certainly thinks it's a failure, as do a lot of American politicians with Israel-friendly voter bases.

Obama's secretary of state, John Kerry, has been frantically trying to keep Congress from imposing further sanctions on Iran. And even Obama was giving the deal only a fifty-fifty chance of success.

Immigration reform, Obama's other big priority, has gone nowhere. Neither has gun control. Last January, a few weeks after the slaughter of children in Newtown, CT, Obama took on the National Rifle Association, demanding at least some mild restrictions on gun ownership. Congress, intimidated by the gun lobby, did nothing.

Can Obama bring himself to pardon NSA leaker Edward Snowden, as the New York Times and other liberal supporters are urging?

The Edward Snowden leaks in the spring informed America their communications data was being scooped up wholesale by the U.S. National Security Agency, and revealed to the rest of the world just how extensively Washington spies on other countries, and their leaders. As the year ended, the revelations just kept coming.

The Republicans' foolish decision to partially shut down government and threaten a national default did give Obama a brief flash of approval.

In fact, the far-right-wing Tea Partiers carrying on an insurrection within the GOP keep proving themselves Obama's objective allies. But the tax-and-spend image still clings to the president, however unfairly, like Washington's summer humidity.

Add it up, and it's hardly what Americans had hoped for back when Obama moved his family and his then 69-per-cent approval rating into the White House in 2009.

Leading from behind?

James Thurber, the respected presidential historian at American University in Washington, remains an Obama fan, and is willing to cut the president more slack than most.

"I don't think he'll go down immediately as a beloved president," the way Clinton and Reagan did, Thurber says. "But things are never as good or as bad as they're depicted."

One saving grace, Thurber points out, is that "we are not in a hot war. We have stayed out of a lot of terrible situations."

Obama's supporters call that "leading from behind." His Republican opponents call it weakness.

In the short run, of course, Obama's legacy is already being formed. It's a matter of coattails.

He will not be running for office again, but his popularity matters greatly to Democrats in Congress, many of whom will be running for re-election in the 2014 midterms in November.

The gerrymandering of federal districts at the state level has seen to it that Democrats have nearly no hope of retaking the House.

But the Senate is a different story, and today there are serious fears they may yet lose the upper chamber because of the Obamacare fiasco.

If they do, that will hamstring the rest of Obama's term and will give the Republicans a huge podium to set the priorities for 2016.

As his year limped to a close, the Wall Street Journal published a new poll. A glance at the graphs told the story: Obama's popularity sagging, with 60 per cent of respondents saying their view of the president was shaped by Obamacare, and a majority saying they'd rather see Republicans in control of Congress.

The Washington Post, which awards a Worst Week in Washington award every weekend, just awarded Obama the Worst Year award.

As Queen Elizabeth would have said, an annus horribilis. Or, as the Post put it: "Congrats, or something."

From the White House nowadays, Bethesda must seem far away, and long ago.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.


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