This month, President Barack Obama signed into law a financial reform bill aimed at preventing another financial crisis. It cost him financial backers on Wall Street, but gave consumers new protections and government more regulatory oversight powers. The financial reform bill came on the heels of the hard-fought health-care reform law, which for the first time provides insurance coverage for all Americans. That in turn followed the successful rescue of the U.S. automotive sector and a massive stimulus bill full of Democratic policy victories, like a huge expansion of federal support for environmentally friendly energy technologies. In his first year and a half in office, Obama put the first Latina on the Supreme Court and is on track to have three women on the top court for the first time in U.S. history. He reached an arms control deal with the Russians and picked up a Nobel Peace Prize. It’s been decades since any president has accomplished so much so quickly—and all this without headlines about West Wing interns.
And yet, the White House is on the defensive. Even as the financial legislation worked its way through Congress to the President’s desk for signature, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was being taken to task for admitting on a Sunday morning talk show that Democrats could lose the House of Representatives in mid-term elections this November. House Democrats were livid. Headlines used words like “panic” and “white flag.” But sadly for Obama, Gibbs was merely stating the obvious.
It is unremarkable for a president’s party to lose some seats in mid-term elections—a time when voters typically take their discontent out on incumbents. But this one could be particularly ugly for Democrats. Despite his legislative successes, Americans have been turning on Obama. His drop in approval in his first 12 months, from the mid-60s to the low 50s—or less in some polls—was one of the sharpest for a newly elected president over his first year. Now, 18 months after his inauguration, fewer than half of Americans approve of his job performance, and he is almost as acidly unpopular among Republican voters as former president George W. Bush was with Democrats in his second term.
Most importantly, Obama has lost the crucial independent voters whose support helped propel him into the White House—slightly more than half disapprove of his job performance.
And between the crippled economy and the drawn-out struggle to stop environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, confidence in Obama has been deeply shaken. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll in July, nearly six in 10 voters say they lack faith in the President to make the right decisions for the country, while a majority disapproves of how he is dealing with the economy. Quite a reversal since the start of his presidency, when about six in 10 expressed confidence in his decision-making. Obama now finds himself at about the same place president Bill Clinton was in the summer of 1994, a few months before Republicans captured both the House and Senate.
Obama is under siege from both the ideological right and the left. Conservative critics accuse him of going too far, too fast to grow government and impose new regulations. A July poll for Fox News by Democracy Corps, the firm of Democratic consultants James Carville and Stan Greenberg, estimates that 55 per cent of likely voters believe the term “socialist” describes Obama “well” or “very well.” Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, in an ad released on YouTube, tapped into anxieties over government takeovers of the economy by referring to “these policies coming out of Washington” as “this fundamental transformation of our country.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a tribune of big business, which had stood with Obama during the fight over the stimulus bill, has since turned on him.
The chairman of the board of directors, Tom Bell, accused the administration of a “general attack on our free enterprise system.” Chamber president and CEO Tom Donohue said that given health-care reforms and potential climate legislation, “the regulatory activity now under way is so overwhelming and beyond anything we have ever seen that we risk moving this country away from a government of the people to a government of the regulators.”
The big-spending, anti-business message has taken hold. A poll for the Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank, by the Benenson Strategy Group, a firm that also polls for Obama, asked potential voters whether they would prefer a candidate in the mid-term elections who “will stick with President Barack Obama” on economic policies, or “one who will start from scratch with new ideas to shrink government, cut taxes, and grow the economy.” Sixty-four per cent preferred starting from scratch, compared with just 30 per cent who would stick with the Obama policies. The Greek fiscal crisis added a grim backdrop to the debate over the mounting federal deficit. And Obama’s US$787-billion stimulus plan—which drew not a single Republican vote in the House—is seen as less an achievement than a mistake.