By Dan Balz
The Washington Post
President Barack Obama likes to say he will never again be running for office, but every Democrat knows he will be on the ballot figuratively in 2014, and 2016, as well. Right now they are rightly nervous about that prospect.
A month ago, political Washington was transfixed by the errors committed by congressional Republicans. Those missteps led to a partial shutdown of the government, which in turn has brought approval of the GOP to record lows in many public opinion surveys.
Nothing about that has changed. But today, it's Obama in the spotlight. A president famous for his unflappability, he is now struggling to square assurances that he is on top of the problems confronting his administration with assertions that he was unaware of the problems as they were developing.
The president's apology for misleading people about whether they could keep their health insurance under the terms of the Affordable Care Act, which came during an interview with NBC's Chuck Todd, was a remarkable step, underscoring just how concerned he and his advisers are about the damage caused by the chaotic rollout of the new law.
Obama long has been among the most self-confident of politicians and has not often been willing to acknowledge error in such a straightforward way. Where he has acknowledged shortcomings or disappointments, he has rarely included the kind of contrition he expressed to the people who took him at his word and have since seen their health-care policies canceled.
His mea culpa was all the more notable because it came only a few days after he had attempted to put a retrospective asterisk on those original assurances, enunciated as he sought to sell his controversial health-care plan to a skeptical public.
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Obama faces two urgent problems. The first is to make the Affordable Care Act work. That begins, but does not end, with fixing the balky website HealthCare.gov. He and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have promised the site will be running smoothly by the end of this month.
But fixing the website is only one of the repairs that are now needed. As the president's apology highlighted, the viability of the new program has been undermined as people learn about the real-life changes being forced by the law's implementation.
A law as complex as the Affordable Care Act will continue to bring surprises — and not all of them happy ones for some consumers — as new regulations go into effect. A shortfall in sign-ups, particularly by young and healthy uninsured Americans, would present major problems. Absent buy-in by the public, the new law could end up being blamed for almost anything that goes wrong with people's health-care coverage, whether justified or not.
The second and broader challenge the president faces is restoring his credibility, not only on health care but also on his overall leadership. It could take years for the public to reach a full judgment on the Affordable Care Act. With talk already turning to the contest to succeed him, the president knows he has only a limited amount of time in which to get back on top of things.
Obama is dismissive of the crisis-an-hour mentality that often grips the political chattering class. He has endured low moments throughout his political career and has found a way to ride them out. He is famously patient. But he is now in a hole of his own making.
He decided to risk enactment of comprehensive health-care reform along strictly partisan lines because he concluded there might not be another chance in his presidency to do what one after another of his predecessors had failed to do. He may have been correct that this was his best opportunity, but it was a big bet with long-term consequences. At the same time, he made claims about the new law, selling-points designed as part of a political sales job, that have been called into question, compounding his problems.
The latest report cards on the president's performance chart the decline in his standing in the year since he was reelected. The Pew Research Center, in a poll released late last week, pegs his approval rating at 41 percent. That is 14 points lower than it was at the end of last year.
Obama's approval rating in the Pew surveys is still a few points higher than President George W. Bush's was at the same point in his second term. But it is far below the rating of the two previous two-term presidents before Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. Both were in strongly positive territory a year into their second terms.
Obama's ratings on specific issues are far worse: 59 percent disapproval on health care; 65 percent disapproval on the economy; 60 percent disapproval on immigration. He suffers from the reverse of the old expression that a rising tide lifts all boats. Deepening dissatisfaction has spilled across the spectrum of public assessments of his presidency.
The Pew numbers are only slightly more pessimistic than the very latest tracking from Gallup, which puts the president's approval rating at 43 percent. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polls shows Obama at 42 percent positive, 52 percent negative.
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After the government shutdown, Democrats looked more optimistically toward the 2014 midterm elections. They began talking about gaining seats.
Normally the party in control of the White House suffers losses in midterm elections. There have been some exceptions in recent years — 1998 for the Democrats and 2002 for the Republicans — but those anomalies were probably due to unusual circumstances. Clinton benefited from public backlash against the Republicans for moving toward impeachment. Bush gained in the first midterms after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Rhodes Cook, an independent analyst of elections, put together a chart on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections that compared presidential approval with the success of the president's party in midterm campaigns. For Democrats a year away from 2014, the findings should be sobering. Looking at midterm elections dating back to John F. Kennedy's presidency, no president with an approval rating below 50 percent has seen his party gain seats.
Historical comparisons are trickier today, given polarized voting patterns and the reality that many incumbents are in more secure districts than they were many years ago. But here is what happened in the past. Obama's approval rating was in the mid-40s on the eve of the 2010 elections, and his party lost 63 seats in the House. Clinton was a couple points higher than that when Republicans picked up 54 seats in 1994. Lyndon B. Johnson, after a landslide reelection in 1964, lost 48 seats in the 1966 midterm elections.
The public is in a sour mood. Neither party is held in high regard, although the Republican brand is in worse shape. Democrats hope that Republicans have made themselves toxic by the tactics employed during the government shutdown. That, they believe, could help overturn history's patterns. But Obama's weaknesses raise a significant caution flag to all those calculations. Putting his presidency on a more secure footing is now his biggest challenge.