Friday, August 07, 2009
200 Days & Running
How times change.
At the end of President Obama's first 100 days, he was at the top of his game, His approval rating was over 60 percent, the stimulus package had passed and the public waited for it to work its magic through the economy. Around certain parts, however, some cautionary advice was offered to watch out for "rhetorical overkill" that could endanger "his likability and credibility."
Today, on his 200th day in the White House, those words seem somewhat prophetic. Yes, Obama got his first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor confirmed on Thursday. But not only did that 68-31 vote turn out to be a far more partisan than anticipated, everywhere else there are clouds on the horizon.
The Quinnipiac poll has him at just 50 percent approval -- and 42 percent disapproval. While others look a little better, the overall picture is the same -- a downward trend. He's clearly lost control of the health-care debate. This month's PR push is beginning to look more like a defensive gesture to recover lost support, rather an affirmative building effort. When White House operatives are forced to refer to health-care reform opponents in town hall meetings across the country as members of a "mob," it begins to reek of desperation.
How did it get to this point? Better yet, how did it seem to fall apart so quickly in the jog from Day 101 to 200?
Three reasons: Spending/economy anxiety, health-care fears and woes and, sad to say, the Henry Louis Gates affair:
1) Economy. The public was willing to accept the ratcheted up spending -- but only to a point. The stimulus package seemed to make some sense at first, given what had been seen over the previous six months. But added to the bailouts for banks, auto industry, and others, it was inevitable that a stopping point would be reached. Obama thought that would discovered later rather than sooner.
No such luck.
The same poll shows deep concern over the rising deficits. With another estimated 550,000 jobless claims filed in July -- and the deficit having reached $1.3 trillion -- it becomes more difficult for Obama to convince a wary public that his economic proposals are working. More than just authorizing federal funds to auto dealers, perhaps there's an expanding fear that "cash for clunkers" also describes Obama's general plan for the economy -- throw money at problems. Regardless, with unemployment still rising, the anxiety spills into the debate on...
2) Health-care. In a vacuum, the promise of near-universal health coverage sounds promising. But, just as with the Clinton approach 15 years, the more the public hears about the various plans coming out of Congress, the less they like it. What's scaring people away? Fear of both the long-term fiscal costs of a health-care program and fear that the insurance benefits that most Americans already have might be endangered.
At one time, the White House might have imagined that Obama's personal popularity and likability would have been enough to convince a wary public that the health-care reform was essential to the nation's long-term recovery -- despite their doubts.
But even his personal popularity has taken a hit. For that, one can thank...
3) Henry Louis Gates. The aforementioned Q poll is the first one that truly illustrates what self-inflicted damage Obama did with his press conference response to the Gates arrest:
Obama acted "stupidly" in the dispute between a black professor and a white police officer, American voters say 49 - 33 percent. White voters say 54 - 27 percent that he acted stupidly, while black voters disagree 61 - 16 percent. Hispanic voters split 42 - 43 percent.
By a 62 - 26 percent margin, voters say the President should not have intervened in this matter. Black voters split 44 - 42 percent on whether Obama should have intervened.
These sort of black-white splits on issues are precisely what the first black president doesn't want. An earlier poll showed that his support among white voters plunged under 50 percent in the days immediately following the incident:
The poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of respondents disapproved of Obama's handling of the Gates arrest, compared with 29 percent who approved. The poll also found the incident and Obama's reaction saturated the public consciousness. As many as 80 percent of Americans said they are now aware of Obama's comments on the matter.
The president's approval ratings fell, especially among working-class whites, as the focus of the Gates story shifted from details about the incident to Obama's remarks, the poll said. Among whites in general, more disapprove than approve of his comments by a two-to-one margin.
It should also be noted that those working-class whites were the same group that Obama had the greatest difficulty attracting during the protracted primary battle with Hillary Clinton. It's quite clear that they remain the loosest part of Obama's coalition. The Gates affair quickly re-stoked suspicions they had over Obama. Coming at a critical moment in the health-care debate (literally, at the end of a press conference which had been focused on health reform issues), the doubts inspired by the race controversy may have subconsciously spilled over white voters views of Obama in general, as predicted here at the time.
If health-care is ultimately doomed because of Obama's "stupid" response, that will be a high price to have paid for just a couple of lines in a lengthy press conference. But politics isn't fair.
The question for the president now is: Can he recalibrate the debate in a month where the public traditionally tunes out politics -- and especially policy? He has little choice. With the critical policy issue of his first term tied up in Congress now, if he doesn't create more fertile ground to get some form of health-care reform passed this fall, Democrats face a woeful mid-term election atmosphere in 2010 -- especially if the economy doesn't turn around.
It's not too inaccurate to say that Obama's third 100 days -- and subsequent weeks and months -- may largely depend on the success of strategies crafted and implemented over the next 30 days.