Obama Troubles Mount As Dog Days Loom

Obama Troubles Mount As Dog Days Loom

By Mike Memoli - July 31, 2009

Barack Obama's second hundred days are ending much differently than his first.

The president marked his 100th day in office with a prime time press conference celebrating his accomplishments thus far, a milestone buoyed at the last minute by the defection of Sen. Arlen Specter to the Democratic Party. His approval rating stood at 61 percent in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll then, and for the first time in months as many Americans felt the country was on the right track as headed in the wrong direction.

Just three months later, however, Obama's numbers are slipping - down to 53 percent in the same NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Americans are again more pessimistic about where the nation is heading. Passage of his top legislative priority, health care reform, won't meet a self-imposed August deadline and is, in fact, an open question now. And Thursday, the White House communication staff was preoccupied with managing a photo op brought about by a significant off-message moment from the usually disciplined president, his comment in a press conference the week before that Cambridge police has acted "stupidly" in arresting an African American professor.

Even Obama advocates would concede that the administration needs a game changer. But heading into the dog days of August, a time that has bedeviled past administrations, it's unclear if that's possible.

What's especially troubling for the White House is that the current down patch comes after a sustained public relations push by the president himself, a tactic it had used successfully to navigate out of trouble even as far back as the campaign.

"The president isn't fixated on the ups and downs of polling," press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday. Alluding to similar troubles in the past, he added: "If we were, we would have quit two years ago this summer, never even run for president."

Gibbs went on to say that Obama continues to be an "able communicator, to say the least," and attributed the current messaging trouble to "a lot of misinformation" being spread, intentionally and unintentionally, about the health care effort.

Republicans counter that his troubles are of his own making, however. At the root of the problem with the health care lobbying effort may be a consequence of growing doubts about the effectiveness of his first major accomplishment, the stimulus package.

"The stimulus is now being viewed by the public as having over-promised and under-delivered. So there is a creping sense that he president will cry wolf when he's trying to get what he wants," said Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

The White House, Madden added, has squandered the reservoir of good will Obama had built up by resorting to partisan tactics in this fight. That's at odds with what had been a strength, where the public viewed him as having providing solutions to challenges in a bipartisan way.

"His winning coalition of voters was built with independents, many of those who are in the big middle of the electorate who saw him as a post partisan figure. I think he has come across as partisan, and his policies seem partisan," Madden said.

That sentiment was echoed by NBC's Chuck Todd, who in explaining the findings of the network's poll said Thursday: "He is still the most popular politician in the country. It's just that he is now being judged by the public as just a politician."

The looming Congressional recess is being seen as a real setback for the health care cause. Lawmakers will return to their districts to find more skeptical constituents, as partisan warfare will ramp up on the air in an expected blitz of television ads by both sides of the debate.

But some argue that Congress being out of town might be just what Obama needs to fully regain control of the debate. And Obama himself will do that in part by spending more time outside of Washington, White House aides say.

"Even as things get quieter in Washington in August, the president will continue to make the case that the status quo is unacceptable," White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said. "He'll make the case for reform that will increase choice and competition in the market. And that reform is just as important for people who already have reform as for people that don't."

But not all of his travel will be devoted to the health care fight. This week's trip to North Carolina showed that the White House realizes it can't ignore the ongoing economic challenges, with Obama devoting considerable time to defending the stimulus.

In addition, Obama is scheduled take a week's hiatus while vacationing in Martha's Vineyard. As history has shown, presidential vacations represent their own set of message problems.

"August is a tough time," Madden said. "He has to make sure that he seems attuned to the concerns and the anxieties that the public is feeling right now on these issues. The last thing he wants is the American public to look at him as unconcerned."

Mike Memoli covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at

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