Monday, July 20, 2009

Barack Obama, A Presidency in Trouble?

Barack Obama has been President of the United States for 182 days or roughly one eighth of his elected term. In the past couple of weeks an increasing theme has emerged, first in the conservative blogosphere and more recently in the main stream media -- is the President on the ropes?

Boy, a lot changes quickly in politics. Six months ago, as the President was sworn into office before huge, adoring crowds it felt like he could do no wrong. Sure, Rush Limbaugh hoped he would fail, but we expect as much from Rush. As for the vast majority of us -- all the Democrats, most of the independents and at least half the Republicans, we all wanted him to do well. We believed he might really be that special, different kind of politican that could change to tone in Washington. What a long time ago that seems like.

So what is the health of the Presidency of Barack Obama? Let's do a run down.

I. The Agenda
Coming into office, President Obama made his policy priorities crystal clear. There were a lot of promises (more on that later) but only 3 clear priorities: Economic Stimulus, Energy Policy and Universal Healthcare.

Let's look at where he stands on each:
a. Economic Stimulus
What He Sought: A large ($700-$800 billion) stimulus package that would pass with a fair amount of Republican support (his stated goal was 80 votes in the Senate) that would stabilize the economy and hold the line on unemployment at 8%.
What He Got: A large ($787 billion) stimulus package, passed in a highly partisan manner (a highly partisan index score of 0.94) that has failed to stop unemployment from rising to 9.5%.

My Analysis:
That the President got such a large bill through congress so quickly was an impressive feat. The way the bill was designed (with the spending spread over 2+ years), the practical fact is that it is impossible to judge the effectiveness of the bill at this juncture. What the President does have is a PR nightmare, partly self-inflicted. Stating a concrete goal of holding unemployment to 8% while in a turbulent, unpredictable economic situation was a huge tactical error. The structure of the bill (funding primarily flows through state governments and private enterprise), while it may have made the bill politically palatable to some makes the PR all the harder. FDR could point to a concrete 4.5 million people who were being employed by the Feds on infrastructure programs. Obama has to rely on vague economic theory about how many jobs were created.

The Verdict: Too soon to tell. If unemployment begins falling, Republican arguments that the stimulus isn't helping will be academic -- people will consider it a success. If unemployment keeps rising, expect the drum beat to get louder and some vulnerable Democrats to start jumping ship from the Obamaonomics wagon.

b. Energy Policy
What He Sought: A broad-based reform of energy policy that includes increased fuel economy standards, higher standards for renewable energy, higher standards for building energy efficiency, and, most critically, a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions.
What He Got: Fuel efficiency standards -- done. The rest of his goals are addressed 100% by the climate change bill that very narrowly passed the house. Senate prospects remain very much in doubt.

My Analysis:
President Obama has laid out an ambitious agenda. A liberal bent to the House, some compromises on carbon credits to coal-users and some political strong-arming got the bill through the lower body of congress. The Senate is almost sure to weaken provisions in the bill and it may be a battle to get any sort of meaningful legislation fail.

The Verdict: Of Obama's 3 central agenda items, this is the one on which he can most afford to fail. He made it a central theme, but does anybody seriously think that if the economy recovers and people get universal healthcare that any significant number of swing voters will care that we didn't do cap and trade? Prospects are probably 50/50 that the President gets a meaningful law ot sign.

c. Universal Healthcare
What He Sought: A bill that creates universal access to affordable health care for all Americans.
What He Got: An expansion of the SCHIP program from 7 million to 11 million kids. Other than that, not a significant bill through either house of congress.

My Analysis:
Odds on this look long. Blue Dog Democrats are demanding serious changes to legislation in the House. The Senate looks even more divided. The ONLY way I can see a bill getting to the President's desk this year is by giving serious ground -- giving up on the "public option" in favor of subsidized exchanges. Limiting government aid to the more needy. Relaxing the rules on "play or pay" to exclude more small businesses. These are painful sacrifices for a guy who once supported single-payer health care. But it is this or no bill, in my opinion. And the President needs to get off the sidelines and start leading on this one.

The Verdict: As I've often noted, President Clinton survived failing on this issue. I'm not sure President Obama will. With Democrats firmly in control of both Houses of congress, if we can't get Health Care Reform done, we might as well have Republicans.

II. Public Approval
The President is not the PR dynamo that he once was, but all is not lost. The Gallup Approval numbers (the ones that I always use for comparability to previous Presidents due to the wealth of available data) peg him at 60% approval for today and an average of 59% for the past week of data. This puts him right about average for Post-World War II Presidents. Not exactly a home run, but not an overt failure either. It means he doesn't have the political capital to strong-arm things through a reluctant congress, but it also doesn't make his agenda poision, the way President Bush's was late in his second term.

III. The Promises has documented 515 promises that President Obama made on the campaign trail. Of these, it rates that he has fulfilled 32 of them, compromised on 10 of them (partially fulfilled them) and broken 7 of them. This is a decent batting average on the one she has dealt with so far -- if we give 1 point for a kept promise, half a point for a compromise and zero points for a broken promise, the President is batting 76% on the promises he has dealt with.

But he has only dealt with 9.5% of them. Sure his term is only 12.5% in, but he is falling behind. A promise not acted on in his term equals a promise broken at the end of the day.

We didn't have for past Presidents, so it's hard to set a benchmark, but I'd say that 50% kept is a pretty good standard from what I have seen of past Presidents. The President has a lot of ground to cover on a lot of issues to even meet that, relatively unambitious-sounding mark.

The good news? Politifact shows 78 promises as "in the works", meaning that the President is pushing for action on them. If fulfilled, these represent over 15% of his total promises.

So is the Obama Presidency in crisis? No. But he isn't the messiah either. The next 4 months will be fairly criticial to my assessment of the President's success. Two questions more than any will define his success or failure:
(1) Will he find a way to get a health care bill through?
(2) Will economic growth return and unemploymetn start to fall?

If the answer winds up being yes to both, the President may well be bulletproof for years to come. If the answer winds up no, watch out for a dramatic swing in power in 2010.

Stay tuned. If you like this site, tell your friends.

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