By almost all traditional metrics, the White House should be celebrating his 2015 instead of offering the subdued and measured defense seen from President Obama at his end-of-the-year press conference. After all, the usual numbers are good—unemployment rate down, job creation up, inflation low, GDP up, gas prices declining. Only the stock market, which will end the year slightly down, is in negative territory.
To add to a bullish appraisal for the president’s agenda, the year saw him prevail on some of his top priorities—protecting Obamacare, achieving a nuclear deal with Iran, reaching an international climate agreement, and pushing through his rapprochement with Cuba. The president can also point to the lowest “Misery Index”—adding unemployment with inflation—since Harry Truman was president. The current 5.3 Misery Index would normally guarantee high approval.
But these are not normal times and traditional metrics don’t tell the whole story. Instead, these are times of widespread national fear of terrorism and anxiety over the availability of good jobs. So the president concludes 2015 mired in the polling doldrums, his approval rating stuck just about where it was when he started the year. And, with the nation even more polarized than before as it weathers a nasty fight to elect the next president, there is no path visible to push Obama’s ratings above 50 percent.
“It was not a bad year for him until November when suddenly everything was pushed off the table by terrorist attacks,” said Bill Schneider, the veteran political analyst who is a professor at George Mason University. “He accomplished certain things, none of them wildly popular. But the economy was definitely improving, the stock market was stabilizing, unemployment was down as much as anyone had hoped for, and the economy was looking good.”
Then came the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and a reaction by the president that even he reportedly conceded to a group of columnists failed to capture the national craving for reassurance and strength. “That is terrorism,” said Schneider, “and he didn’t seem to be strong. That has pushed everything else off the table. Climate change—who cares? Inequality—who cares?”
Schneider, who has been a champion for centrists and moderates in the Democratic Party, said Americans yearned for a reaction similar to President George W. Bush’s after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. “What many Americans were waiting for was for the president to say a very simple ‘Go get ‘em.’ But he’s not a ‘Go get ‘em’ president. … He doesn’t really come across as tough and strong and determined the way Bush did. That is because of the kind of president he is. He has this style and temperament of a professor. Rational. Calm. And thoughtful.”
At the White House, they hoped that 5 percent unemployment, 2 million new jobs and $2-a-gallon gas—down almost 50 cents from a year ago—could trump that anxiety. They also insist that their list of accomplishments is worthy of acclaim. White House press secretary Josh Earnest cited the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the rising numbers of those with health insurance, and the Pacific trade pact. “If I’d have read that list off the top at the beginning of this year. … I don’t think anybody would have thought that was realistic that we were going to get all of that done, particularly facing new Republican majorities in the House and Senate.”
Pressed to explain why none of that boosted the president’s approval ratings, Earnest suggested the attack in San Bernardino “probably leaves people a little concerned, as it should, and that may have a broader impact on their assessment of the current condition of the country.”
William Galston, President Clinton’s chief domestic policy adviser, said he agreed with the checklist of accomplishments. “But,” he said, “obviously, that is not the way the American people are keeping score right now. And that’s the president’s problem.”
Galston went beyond terrorism to explain Obama’s plight. “People are looking for a significant increase in wages and income and they are looking for a sense of security against foreign threats. And they don’t really think they’ve gotten either one of those. So the rest of it doesn’t seem to matter that much.”
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.”