Just how much juice does President Obama have left?
His favorability is sagging. Attention spans are already turning to the 2014 and 2016 election. The progressive agenda Obama touted in his second inaugural little more than two months ago has given way to pleading that Congress act on gun control issues, while Capitol Hill is setting the tone on both immigration reform and the budget.
Consider Obama’s admonishment on gun control in a speech last Friday. A frustrated president asked the nation to ignore opponents of stricter regulation, such as the National Rifle Association, and simply remember the tragic massacre at a Newtown, Conn. elementary school.
“They’re doing everything they can to make all our progress collapse under the weight of fear and frustration, or their assumption is that people will just forget about it,” said Obama, surrounded by family members of some of the victims. “The notion that two months or three months after something as horrific as what happened in Newtown happens and we've moved on to other things – that's not who we are. … Shame on us if we’ve forgotten.”
Whether Obama can still rally the public may depend on how much time he has before being relegated to lame-duck status—and not just because of gun control.
BATTLE AHEAD ON DEBT CEILING
By mid-May, the country will again brush up against the debt ceiling, a $16.5 trillion risk. Some congressional Republicans—backed by groups such as the Club for Growth—say any increase in the government’s borrowing authority should be tied to removing all expenditures for Obamacare, the president’s 2010 expansion of access to health insurance coverage.
GOP lawmakers may not threaten again to force a default on government borrowing, but they have the option of keeping the president on a short leash—potentially hobbling his second term with piecemeal increases of the debt ceiling.
Grover Norquist, the conservative powerhouse and president of Americans for Tax Reform, said shortly after the election that House Republicans can lift the borrowing authority “monthly if he’s good, weekly if he’s not,” Norquist said.
Could this be a bluff? Perhaps. But as shown over the past four years, it’s almost impossible for Obama to break the GOP with his current approval rating of 47.4 percent, according to an average of nine surveys by Real Clear Politics. That is slightly less than his disapproval rating of 47.6 percent.
“The president is right back to where he was in the doldrums period of his first term,” veteran pollster John Zogby told The Fiscal Times on Tuesday. “This, if anything, is formulaic of a stalemate.”
To get out of this jam, Obama needs to bring a solid majority of voters to his side—which means a campaign-like communications strategy—in order to overcome the intensity of his opposition, Zogby said.
Just before Christmas, Obama’s popularity reached 54 percent. That post-November election bounce gave him the needed leverage to hammer out a deal with congressional Republicans to avert the fiscal cliff that included higher tax rates.
But even as the economy continues to improve, his ratings have begun to sink – and it’s unlikely the president will ever be able to muster support from an overwhelming majority.
“This president—with the exception of the first 100 days—has always been fighting in a very narrow range, of sort of 52-to-53 percent on the highest side and down to about 43 percent on the lowest side,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. “So he’s never had the kinds of ratings that many presidents have had, where you have a full gale-force wind at your back. At best, he has a slight breeze at his back, and I don’t think that will ever change very much.”
HOW TO ‘USE’ THE OVAL OFFICE
Hart said Obama must accomplish two things through his use of the bully pulpit: 1.) Bring more independent voters to his side; and 2.) Inspire less hatred from the GOP.
“The difficulty is he obviously lost the independent vote in 2012, so he doesn’t even start off with 50-50,” Hart said, adding, “If you’re only getting six-to-ten percent approval ratings from Republicans, it’s very hard to get a job rating much above 50 percent. The Republicans may not agree on much, but they do agree on one thing – they don’t like Obama.”
There is also a time element to this. On domestic matters, most presidents get written off as lame ducks during the final two years of their second term. But Obama might have even less time than that.
Speculation is already rampant as to whether the GOP can gain a majority in the Senate next year to complement its control of the House. In a perpetual campaign cycle, Obama’s own appearance on CBS News’ “Sixty Minutes” with Hillary Clinton in January added to the intrigue of whether Mrs. Clinton —a rival during the 2008 primaries and a partner in his first-term as Secretary of State—might seek the White House in 2016.
“The acceleration of the campaign season does make things harder,” said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian. “The parties are positioning themselves for the next election much earlier, and the media is reporting on each policy, from the very start, in terms of the impact on the next election.”
In some ways, the shorter time frame should work to Obama’s favor on issues such as immigration reform, where Republicans are seeking to court Hispanic voters with an overhaul that could set the course for 11 million undocumented immigrants becoming citizens.
For now, that effort is being led by a bipartisan “gang” of eight senators, including Florida Republican Marco Rubio—whose Cuban heritage, youthful good looks, and electoral successes have put him on the short list for 2016.
Republicans with national ambitions have an incentive to broaden their party’s appeal. Yet even then, Obama might not be able to count on Capitol Hill’s ability to deliver the reform he has championed because of resistance in the House.
And this has become part of his bind. Obama carries four years’ worth of baggage—and when he strongly endorses a plan, it usually stiffens resistance among House Republicans. Nor are they willing to acknowledge any successes. Few GOP voters credit him with aiding the recovery from the Great Recession—and many claim he will leave the country in worse shape, with historically high levels of debt.
The president won re-election without winning over the professed enemies he needs with him in order to accomplish anything more than he already has.
“The Obama haters of the world, of which there are many, would not credit him for anything,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. “If he came up with a cure for baldness, they wouldn’t give him credit.”