Galston noted that most of the president’s proudest achievements—Iran, the Affordable Care Act, and the climate deal—were forced through with neither Republican support nor public approval. “If you’re acting on your own hook in polarized times, then you’re not going to persuade a lot of people on the fence or on the other side that you’re doing the right thing. So your job approval is not likely to rise.”
Making it worse for Obama is his often-puzzling inability to grasp the emotional need to reassure a frightened citizenry. “When people are feeling scared, it takes a special art to reassure them. He was basically saying you should keep cool the way I’m keeping cool,” Galston said. “But if people are feeling hot and bothered, telling them to stay cool can sometimes make them even more hot and bothered.”
Galston added, “I think he knows himself very well. Whether he understands the people that he’s been leading for almost seven years is a different question altogether. I think he understands people who are like him. I don’t think he understands people who are unlike him particularly well.”
Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center, marveled at how little the president’s approval rating moved during the year. “It has moved two points, from a low of 46 to a high of 48,” he noted, with it ending the year at 46, down one from the start of the year. The RealClearPolitics average for Obama is 43.5.
Doherty said Obama has to fight through general dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, fears of terrorism and continuing anxiety over incomes. “People still feel they are falling behind. People feel their incomes haven’t kept up with the cost of living. … So even though things are significantly better from the depths of the recession, they still are not all that positive.”
He said the climate deal is little help to Obama because it's “among the most polarizing of all issues”—wildly popular with Democrats, deeply unpopular with Republicans.
All that leaves Obama right where he was at the beginning of 2015. In historical terms, he is “between Bush and Clinton,” said Doherty. “Clinton was well above 50 percent and approaching 60 percent. Bush was declining at this point to the 30 percent range. The trajectories were very different. Obama’s is different in the sense that his has been so stable.”
The White House response is to take the long view and argue that it matters more whether what they achieved in 2015 helps Americans a decade from now instead of whether it boosts poll numbers today. “We are much more focused on the work of the American people than we are on reading polls,” said Earnest. For his part, the president insisted that “our steady, persistent work over the years is paying off for the American people in big, tangible ways.”