Why Obama's hope didn't translate

President Obama is now less popular with the voters than George W. Bush was. Is he a victim of his era, or it could be that he isn't a particularly good politician?

Approval ratings are the key barometer of presidential power. When a healthy percentage of voters are kindly disposed to the president, his party is emboldened and eager to do the White House's bidding. When ratings go 'underwater' (disapproval exceeds approval), the president’s agenda sinks along with it. Proximity to a commander-in-chief can switch from blessing to curse in the space of a few bad Gallups.  

At 44 per cent approval, President Obama may not have reached the lows of the one-term Carter, who lost office on 31 per cent, but he is tracking two points behind George W. Bush at the equivalent point in his tenure. Given that this coincided with the most deadly phase of the Iraq insurgency, barely a month after Bush's botched response to Hurricane Katrina, it is not a flattering comparison for the Obama White House (this must be especially galling since the administration has managed both wars and natural disasters with considerably more aplomb than its bumbling predecessor).

There is one theory that Obama's relative lack of popular support, despite his recent and comfortable re-election, comes down to his not being especially good at politics. Such an analysis usually revolves around two of Obama's Democratic predecessors: Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson.

Obama's aloof, even chilly, personal style invites unfavourable comparison with the hot-blooded Clinton, by far the most gifted, albeit flawed, political operator of his generation. Meanwhile, the president’s seeming inability, or unwillingness, to bend Congress to his will is a far cry from the modus operandi employed by Lyndon Johnson, equal parts glad-handing and head-kicking, that enabled passage of the of the most ambitious legislative agenda – including landmark civil rights reforms and Medicare – since FDR's Depression-era New Deal.

The 'Obama as bad politician' thesis does not withstand much scrutiny. Like exes of all kinds, former presidents often seem more attractive in hindsight.

Clinton was elected twice, sure, but with fewer than 50 per cent of the popular vote both times due to the third party candidacy in 1992 and 1996 of billionaire Texas deficit hawk, Ross Perot. And partly because his tenure was marked by relative peace and prosperity, Clinton faced few challenges of historic moment (and when he did, most notably as genocide unfolded in Rwanda in 1994, he failed).

By the end of his presidency, Clinton had won back broad popular support for the most part thanks to a booming economy, but also because Republican efforts to impeach him over the Monica Lewinsky scandal had backfired. After failing to pass healthcare reform in his first term, Clinton’s policy agenda became all about 'triangulation', the dubious art of devising small-bore right-wing solutions to wrong-foot his Republican opponents. In the end, Clinton’s legislative record was as thin as Lyndon Johnson’s was impressive. And yet, to be fair, Johnson could rely on huge (and filibuster-proof) Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, which neither Clinton nor Obama enjoyed. Could Lyndon Johnson’s legendary swagger carry the day in the Tea Party era? Impossible to know, but ‘no’ seems like a fair guess. In any event, Johnson’s disastrous overreach in South East Asia torpedoed his presidency, forcing him out of the re-election race in 1968.

When taken as a whole, even with three years yet to play out, Obama’s foreign and domestic policy record seems likely to make his a more substantive and successful presidency than Clinton or Johnson – and certainly Carter). Healthcare reform was a signature accomplishment – as relentless Republican efforts to repeal attest – Obama also secured passage of a trillion dollar stimulus package; bailed out a now resurgent auto industry; brought the Iraq war to an end, and began the process of ending the 12 year entanglement in Afghanistan. In recent days, progress on Syria and Iran both suggest his nuanced and thoughtful approach to international diplomacy is paying dividends without resorting to air strikes or ground invasions. Notwithstanding jitters on the left, Obama’s policy of pinpoint drone strikes against Al Qaeda and its affiliates – including the killing of Osama bin Laden – have been ruthless and effective. With such a record, you might ask, “why is Obama tanking so badly in the polls?” I have two tentative answers.

Firstly, across the board, support for political institutions, including both houses of congress and even the Supreme Court, are at historic lows. The Republican-majority House of Representative wins the approval of 14 per cent of the population, 10 points lower than Richard Nixon the day he resigned from office, and two points less than BP during the Deepwater Horizon spill, the greatest marine catastrophe in human history. In other words, Obama’s current lack of popularity, which is exceeded in breadth and intensity by his opponents, is emblematic of a broad and growing distrust of institutional power of all kinds.

The second, more prosaic, explanation is jobs and job security. While the unemployment rate is slowly improving workers in the post-recession era are forced into less secure, less well-paid jobs. An entire generation of formerly unionised blue-collar workers are now stocking shelves at Walmart or battling the cash register at Starbucks. And, if they managed to keep hold of their home during the housing crisis, it isn’t worth what they paid for it, and they have no means of upward, or even sideways, mobility. These are the victims of what New Yorker staff writer George Packer describes in a recent book as 'The Unwinding', "when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way”.

Whatever the economists say about the post-2009 recovery, the unwound households of America remain mired in recession; worse, their income is neither secure nor abundant enough to lift them out of it. They may not blame Obama for the circumstances that led to this stasis, and nor should they. It has been at least three decades in the making. But by failing to translate hope and change into a viable economic solution for households treading water or going backwards, Obama has become just another part of the problem.

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