Remember when pundits loved Barack Obama? It’s been quite a few years now. But I suspect some of the adoration is about to come back.
There are three reasons. The first is that politically, Obama’s immigration gamble is working. Fearful of alienating Hispanics or shutting down the government, Republican leaders have largely abandoned hope of overturning Obama’s move. What’s more, Obama’s approval ratings are up 15 points among Hispanics but have not dropped among Anglo whites. Add immigration to health-care reform and the fiscal stimulus and more commentators will start noticing that, whether you like Obama’s agenda or not, it’s been the most consequential of any Democratic president’s since Lyndon Johnson.
Second, and more importantly, the economy is improving. The third quarter saw the fastest job growth in three years, and the unemployment rate is now 5.8 percent, down from 10 percent in 2009. Gas prices are also plunging. And there’s evidence Americans are beginning to notice. As Time recently noted, consumer confidence has just hit its highest mark in eight years. Even if the improving economy doesn’t boost Obama’s approval rating, it’s likely to improve the way he’s seen by the Beltway press. And given the role a strong economy played in buoying Bill Clinton’s approval ratings in the late 1990s, despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it’s quite possible that Obama’s will rise too, which will further fuel the journalistic perception that Obama is back.
Finally, the context in which journalists judge Obama is about to change. This year’s dominant storyline was about Obama and the midterm elections. Most key Senate races took place in red and purple states where Democratic candidates distanced themselves from Obama, thus magnifying the media’s perception that he was a political pariah.
Next year, however, the story won’t be 2014 but 2016. And the Democratic story, in all likelihood, will be Hillary Clinton’s march toward her party’s nomination. While Obama was certainly unpopular this fall in states like Kentucky, he remains quite popular among the liberal activists who play an outsized role in Democratic primaries. In fact, Obama retains a connection to many them that Hillary Clinton has never enjoyed. The closer she comes to the nomination, the more nostalgic some of those grassroots liberals will become about Obama. And this new context—Obama versus Hillary among Democratic activists—rather than Obama versus Alison Lundergan Grimes among Kentucky midterm voters—will cast him in a more favorable light. Just last week, in a slap at Clinton, 300 former Obama campaign staffers signed a letter urging Elizabeth Warren to run. In the year to come, there will be many more reminders that in 2008 Obama generated a passion among liberals that Hillary Clinton did not, and may still not. That storyline will make Obama look good.
Every presidency has its media cycles. Journalists like to build up, tear down and then build up again. This year, Obama’s media coverage has been horrendous. According to The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, Obama had the worst year of any major figure in Washington. But it’s precisely because so many journalists share Cillizza’s views that our easily bored tribe will now try to push the pendulum back. Which won’t be very hard at all.