Year One

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It’s very nearly a year since Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States. Besides Haiti, the big story this week in the US is that his approval rating is now worse than that of any other President a year in to his term except Eisenhower. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, his approval/disapproval score was 45% to 45%. Gallup has him 49-44. To put this into perspective, at his inauguration Obama had a 70-12 rating. The drop off to now is pronounced.

This almost unprecedented decline will form the basis of the commentary over the next few days into how Obama’s first year has gone. That’s not entirely fair. Firstly, his approval was still at 70% in May. Secondly, to focus too hard on the numbers would be a far too narrow approach in judging this President’s first year, and might lead to the wrong conclusion. The famous Lincoln meme, “you can’t please all of the people all of the time”, points to a trend often seen in political approval — the more you do, the more people you upset. And the Obama administration has done a great deal this last year, much of it unglamorous and a great deal of it politically inexpedient. The stimulus is thought by most economists to have been a great help in stabilising the crashing economy, but that hasn’t made people any less wary of the enormous volume of tax dollars spent in the process. Sonia Sotomayor was a well-qualified, historic pick for the Supreme Court, but that didn’t stop the right raising hell in some quarters. The incremental nature of the healthcare reform pursued to date has angered both left and right, and the continued engagement in Afghanistan remains a source of considerable angst.

Much of this is natural to the process of governing — tough decisions are by their nature sources of division. It is significant, though, given what we thought we knew about both Obama and his political machine at the start of his term, that the disconnect has become so distinct. The campaign had shown Obama to be a communicator unmatched by his peers. His political operation was quite possibly the most adept of any presidential campaign of the modern era. But in the government, on policy, the message is often cluttered, unclear. The public does not, it seems, associate Obama with political success, even while, compared with his predecessors, Obama’s first year has been a strong one. Partly this is the product of a gap between expectations and what has transpired; partly it is a simple failure of communication — a failure to provide adequate counterweight to the criticisms directed at the President, or to tout his achievements loudly enough.

The problem is bigger for the Democrats than for Obama himself. There are three years left before his next election, but the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate is up for reelection this November. Even in a good showing, the Democrats can likely expect to lose the Senate Majority leader, Harry Reid (who looks set to bomb in Nevada despite a very significant fundraising advantage), in addition to three or four other Senators — enough to lose their filibuster-proof majority. And if the current political climate progresses, legions of House Democrats will suddenly find their safe seats back in play.

As gains in the economy begin to be felt more widely, the national mood will change. But a sustained effort by the administration to recapture the support of the country is needed or the President’s popularity will continue to slip. In year one, they’ve been good at ‘doing’ but bad at ‘selling’. That will have to change or year two will be a rough ride.

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