Source: USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The fate of President Obama’s second term is emerging as a battle between improving news about the economy and souring views of his signature health care law.
A year-end USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll chronicles what a drag the Affordable Care Act has become on Obama’s reputation, helping to drive down his standing as a trustworthy leader and one who can get things done to the lowest levels of his presidency. Disapproval of the health care law hits a new high.
In one of the few bright spots for the president in the survey, approval of his handling of the economy has surged by 11 percentage points in the space of a month, albeit to an anemic 42%. The improvement presumably reflects reports in recent days that the nation’s jobless rate has declined, economic growth has picked up, and the stock market has soared.
The slide in Obama’s overall job approval rating in the past five Pew polls has been stemmed, now at 45% approve-49% disapprove — not great, to be sure, but better than before.
The question facing Obama as he prepares for his final three years in office: Can he claim enough credit for an improving economy to offset the damage done by — ironically — the achievement to which he devoted much of his first term?
“Some sustained economic growth would provide the swiftest tailwind for Obama’s second term, for Democrats for running in 2014,” says John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University and co-author of The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election. “It is certainly a big enough factor to overshadow any challenges that the Affordable Care Act continues to have.”
Despite some economic optimism, Americans aren’t confident good times have arrived. Four in 10 say their personal financial situations are good or excellent; another four in 10 call them “only fair.” Just 15% rate economic conditions nationwide as good or excellent, but the percentage who rate them as poor has dropped by 12 points since early October.
Obama continues to be more trusted to do the right thing when it comes to dealing with the economy than Republican congressional leaders: 47% have a great deal or fair amount of faith in the president, compared with 36% who say that of GOP leaders.
The poll of 2,001 adults, taken Tuesday through Sunday, has a margin of error of +/–3 points.
The survey’s dominant finding is how much the bollixed rollout of the health care law this fall has scarred fundamental elements of the president’s reputation, including among some of the demographic groups that were most enthusiastic about re-electing him a year ago. Among the most disenchanted are young people.
Americans split on how to judge Obama’s presidency: 46% call it a success; 48% call it a failure.
Obama is hardly the first president to stumble in his second term. Ronald Reagan became enmeshed in the Iran-contra scandal, and Bill Clinton was impeached in the Monica Lewinsky affair. But both Reagan and Clinton had higher approval ratings than Obama does at this point in their second terms, as did Dwight Eisenhower.
The modern predecessor Obama tracks most closely in terms of approval is George W. Bush, whose second term was caught in rising opposition to the Iraq War and, at its end, by the financial meltdown that led to the Great Recession.
History’s patterns aren’t encouraging for Obama. Since presidential approval started being measured on a consistent basis in the 1940s, only two of the previous second-term presidents have seen their approval drop below 50% in the first several months after re-election — Bush and Richard Nixon — and both had second terms that were considered unsuccessful.
David Axelrod, who served as a top strategist for Obama in campaigns and the White House, dismisses “the breathless commentary lately that once you go down, you don’t go up in your second term.” He predicts the president’s approval ratings will “bounce around,” especially given the frenetic nature of today’s media and political worlds.
Unexpected events with the potential to reshape the political landscape, from terror attacks to catastrophic hurricanes, could well happen over the next three years.
Still, although they are obviously different enterprises, some analysts see parallels in the political impact of the Iraq War on Bush and the Affordable Care Act on Obama.
“In both cases, they were among the most important choices of each man’s presidency, and they were controversial,” says William Kristol, editor and publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard. He notes that Bush’s credibility was damaged when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, a primary reason he had given for ordering the invasion; Obama’s credibility was hurt when his repeated assurances that anyone who liked their insurance plans would be able to keep them turned out to be untrue.
In the USA TODAY poll, Americans split 47%-47% when asked if the Obama administration deliberately misled Americans about whether they could keep their plans. For Bush at this point in his second term, 53% said he had deliberately misled Americans about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; 46% said he hadn’t.
“Everything right now depends on recovering from Obamacare,” veteran Democratic strategist Paul Begala acknowledges, but he sees limits to the Iraq analogy. “There was no recovering from Iraq. The surge (of additional U.S. troops) worked, but it couldn’t change people’s fundamental conclusion that the war was a bad idea.”
Attitudes toward the health care law, he says, are “imminently more fixable.”
NO SIGNS OF A RALLY
That said, from the White House point of view, those attitudes need fixing.
In the poll, 54% disapprove of the health care law, 41% approve — the worst rating for the Affordable Care Act since it was enacted three and a half years ago. Some of the key groups that supporters hoped would rally behind the law aren’t doing so, at least not yet. Forty-five percent of those without insurance approve of the law. Among those with incomes under $30,000 a year, the group most likely to qualify for federal subsidies, 43% approve. Forty-one percent of those under 30 and 44% of women approve.
What’s more, Americans are inclined to view the problems the law has faced this fall as long-term problems that show fundamental flaws (50%) rather than short-term problems that can be resolved (44%).
Rhetoric and public relations won’t be enough to build support for Obamacare, cautions political scientist Jeffrey Cohen of Fordham University. “What will save Obamacare as a policy is its effectiveness, and nothing Obama says can do much about that.”
Those surveyed see the complexity of the health insurance system as a major reason for the problems. By an overwhelming 2-1, they blame flaws in the health care law itself and poor management by the Obama administration. Half also cite politicians who oppose the law and have tried to undermine it.
Since September, just before the HealthCare.gov website opened to a cascade of problems, assessments of the law’s impact on the country as a whole have worsened. By 49%-23%, those surveyed call the overall impact of the law mostly negative rather than positive. When asked about the impact on themselves and their families, they say by 23%-15% that it has been mostly negative.
Whatever the impact of the law on Americans generally, its impact on Obama personally has been unmistakably damaging, including on some of the characteristics voters see as most critical in a president.
Fifty-one percent of Americans say Obama is not a good manager. He receives the lowest ratings of his presidency on being able to get things done (43% say he can, down 14 points since the beginning of the year) and for being trustworthy (52%, down 14 points).
Though most Americans continue to call him a good communicator and someone who “cares about people like me,” he has dropped on both measures. Only the judgment that he stands up for what he believes hasn’t been dented.
“Whatever Teflon he’s had may be beginning to wear off,” Sides says. “It’s a moment in his administration not like Benghazi or the IRS scandal or other kinds of things. It really does seem to have caught up with him personally.”
Obama has been buoyed by the strong support he continues to get from some critical constituencies: 89% of African Americans, 81% of Democrats, 72% of liberals and 59% of Hispanics. But a year after he decisively won a second term, he faces significant erosion in support among some crucial groups of supporters.
The president’s approval rating among 18- to 29-year-olds was at 67% in January; it’s 45% now. At the beginning of the year, 66% of those with postgraduate degrees approved of the job he was doing; now 52% do. Among women under 50, his approval dropped from 58% to 47%.
Rebuilding lost support may well be a fundamental task for the rest of his term, and an essential one if he wants to be able to push legislation addressing priorities such as immigration. Given the polarized state of American politics, that may prove to be even more difficult than it would have been for his predecessors.
“We had a rough few months for the president, a rough few months for politics in general,” says White House Communication Director Jennifer Palmieri. “We expect that as we get further away from October and November, which were really difficult, and assuming the health care (website) continues to improve, we think that people will see the president that they like again.”
In the State of the Union address in January, she says, “he can reorient on economic issues.”
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