Let’s begin in Chicago, shall we, a little over a year ago. It was unseasonably warm that Wednesday, the hour so early that night had not yet staggered into day.Barack Obama, newly re-elected, glided on stage in a blue tie and smart suit. He was triumphant but chastened, having just been given a second chance by voters who thought their country was heading in the wrong direction but nevertheless agreed to return him to office by a surprisingly healthy margin.
Any illusion that Mr. Obama was some kind of modern-day Messiah had melted away. The electorate saw the President instead for who he was: A political loner who prefers policy to people. Painstaking. Deliberate. Aloof. And that was fine.
“We know in our hearts that, for the United States of America, the best is yet to come,” Mr. Obama told the cheering crowd in Chicago.
Barely a year later, the aloof loner has become a lame duck in a second-term collapse of such historic proportions that it is prompting people to compare him to, of all people, George W. Bush.
The affordable health-care act’s unbelievably botched rollout, punctuated by a prime-time apology from the President, in which he admitted to reneging on his promise that Americans could keep their existing health-care plans, threatens to wreck his credibility beyond repair and undermine the rest of his term of office.
“I am sorry,” Mr. Obama said on CNN in what some analysts are calling his “Katrina moment.” The reference, of course, is to former president George W. Bush, whose bumbling efforts to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina made him appear unfit for his job. Public faith in Mr. Bush’s competence hit an inflection point from which it never recovered, hindering his ability to enact social security reforms that he had hoped would be his signature legislation. They never got done.
“Once people start turning, it’s difficult to get them back,” says George Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A&M University.
Every second-term president has a narrow window in which to make good on campaign promises before being written off. Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago, who served as Mr. Obama’s first White House chief of staff, summed it up: “The first 14 months are productive, the last 14 months are productive, and you sag in the middle,” he told The New York Times. As it turns out, when it comes to his former boss, Mr. Emanuel was overly optimistic.
Mr. Obama’s poll numbers in the wake of the health-care debacle and mea culpa have taken a dive, mirroring Mr. Bush’s trajectory. His approval rating has sagged to its lowest levels yet – 37 per cent, according to a CBS News poll last week – leading some experts to suggest it’s time to write the obit on Mr. Obama’s administration.
They have a point. Second-term presidents whose approval ratings plummet have a fairly impossible time of climbing back up. In the 1950s, Harry Truman’s second-term approval ratings sank from 46 per cent to 35 per cent in the latter half of his second term, when America was mired in the Korean War. Iran-Contra sent Ronald Reagan’s low-60s approval rating into a tailspin, dipping below 50 per cent.
The trend suggests Mr. Obama simply won’t bounce back. Part of the problem is that, by a second term, the public’s patience has worn thin.
“At this point, people think they know Obama,” Prof. Edwards says. “It’s not like there’s some kind of start-up problems, or he’s just getting his feet wet. We’re five years in. So what’s the deal?”
What confounds so many observers is why Mr. Obama failed in this particular way. He has tried to account for the troubles with the glitchy health-care website – and the controversy around America’s secret spying on allied heads of states, for that matter – by saying he was simply unaware of the problems until it was too late. This has led critics to label him a bystander president.
Prof. Edwards, however, believes Mr. Obama’s troubles go much deeper, stemming from issues at the core of his leadership ability. Great leaders, Prof. Edwards says, are wrongly viewed as “directors of change” – people who use their charisma, intellect and charm to sway public opinion and reshape the political landscape to achieve their desired ends. That’s a myth, he says.
Instead, great leaders should be more accurately understood as “facilitators of change.” The most effective presidents accept that things like public opinion and Congress are essentially immutable limits and work within them. When there’s an opportunity, they exploit it, and that’s how they get things done. It’s a version of Otto von Bismarck’s adage: “Politics is the art of the possible.” It is also comes down to timing.
The folly of Mr. Obama’s first term was that he went to Washington acting like a “director of change,” promising to tame partisan politics. That turned out to be an exercise in futility. When Mr. Obama returned for a second term, the hope was he would be more of a “facilitator.” He wouldn’t waste time trying to change the system. Instead, he’d game the system.