Obama Is Pulling a 'Reverse Reagan'

The Gipper managed to remain popular even as voters disliked many of his policies. With the Affordable Care Act on the rebound, the current president faces the opposite problem.
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Larry Downing/Reuters

The president couldn't resist spiking the football over the Affordable Care Act. "Many of the tall tales that have been told about this law have been debunked. There are still no death panels," he crowed in the Rose Garden this week. "Armageddon has not arrived."

After all the negative drum-beating about Obamacare, it's tempting now for the administration to taunt the Sarah Palins and Mitch McConnells of the world—and, yes, the news media, too. The White House has been staring into the Mouth of Hell for months as the law's implementation woes dragged down President Obama's approval rating and threatened his second-term agenda. With the announcement that more than 7 million Americans have signed up for health insurance, it might feel like the long Obamacare winter is finally over. The sun is shining, birds are chirping. You can almost see Julie Andrews spinning around in the Alps.

"The president is on an upswing," said Michael Feldman, a Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House aide. "Politics is about impact moments, and reaching that goal was an important impact moment."

Give the White House that moment. And then, it may be time for Democrats to shut up about it—even if Republicans won't.

The most immediate benefit of reaching the enrollment mark may be that it allows the president and his senior aides to take a breath and move on—and maybe the media and the public will do the same. As the March 31 deadline for enrolling approached, the drip-drip coverage became agonizingly incremental, like the last few hours of a Jerry Lewis telethon: Was the website up or down? Was the current total 6 million, 6.2, 6.5? With Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border and Middle East peace talks in jeopardy, the attention, with its focus on a cohort of people that roughly matches the population of metro Dallas, felt reductive.

The respite also allows Obama's deep thinkers to sit back and survey the political damage that has been done. And they'll find that the landscape is charred. The president remains mired in a second-term malaise. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed Obama's approval rating locked at 42 percent, which came on the heels of an Associated Press/GfK poll last week that had him at 39 percent, with 59 percent of Americans disapproving of his performance.

This administration has seen low numbers before. What's striking this time around are the low marks the president has been getting on foreign policy, the lowest of his presidency. The Quinnipiac poll found that just 39 percent of those surveyed gave him good marks, while the AP poll had him at 40. And, according to a Gallup Poll in February, the number of Americans who believe Obama is respected on the world stage dropped precipitously in 2013—down to 41 percent.

The negativity comes even as surveys found that a strong majority of Americans approved of Obama's policy approach toward Russia, where he has imposed economic sanctions in a bid to force negotiations. And as the public is feeling ever-so-slightly more reassured about the economy. Moreover, a large swath of voters agrees with the president on such diverse issues as immigration, the minimum wage and same-sex marriage. But, still, the needle isn't moving.

That means with Obama, it's increasingly becoming personal. George Edwards, an expert on presidents and public opinion at Texas A&M University, says that Obama has become, in a sense, a Reverse Reagan. President Reagan's policy views were seen at the time as out of step with the mainstream, but he transcended that. "When Reagan ran for reelection against Walter Mondale, Mondale won on most of the issues. What trumped all of that was that Reagan was viewed as a strong, competent leader," Edwards said.

By contrast, Obama remains earthbound, pinned down especially by his waffling on Syria last year and the ACA's botched rollout, both of which, Edwards said, added to "creeping questions about the president's competence."

The good health care news this week might help abate some of those concerns, but Republican pollster Bill McInturff says not to expect too much of a jump in the president's approval rating. Obama, he said, might regain some support from Democrats who were disillusioned with the ACA. But McInturff still expects Obama to be a "major drag on the party" heading into this fall's midterms.

That doesn't mean there aren't things the White House can do to get out from under it all, although it's unlikely the president will ever sniff 50 percent approval again. For one thing, McInturff noted, talking about health care is good only for firing up the Democratic base. Few others stand to be converted.

That's because, adds Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup, most view the law through a political prism, not in terms of societal benefits. "I'm sure the White House doesn't like that," Newport said. But to many, he said, the constant bickering over health care is "a distraction to what they think the president should be focused on—the economy and jobs."

Don Baer, a senior aide in the Clinton White House, agrees. "They need a consistent and persistent focus on things that they are doing to help the middle class, and to help drive a new sense of opportunity and growth in the economy," said Baer, now CEO of PR giant Burson-Marsteller.

As if on cue, Obama left Washington the day after his Rose Garden victory lap to fly to Michigan to tout a proposed minimum-wage hike. And while the White House looks to turn the page, that's all it can do. There's no going back now—no such thing as a reboot at this late date in this presidency.

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James Oliphant is a White House correspondent at National Journal.

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