What Barack Obama must do in 2014

(He has 10 months to rescue his presidency)

Larry Downing / Reuters

Time is running out for Barack Obama. The U.S. President is struggling to climb out from under the lowest approval ratings of his presidency as he heads into a brutal political season building up to the November congressional elections. Control of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance and, with it, Obama’s ability to push his domestic agenda for the rest of his presidency. With his approval rating falling below 40 per cent of Americans, and nearly two-thirds critical of his handling of the economy, the President who was re-elected with a majority in 2012 has entered the dismal polling territory of his predecessor.

“The obvious comparisons are between Obama and George W. Bush,” says Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center. “And his ratings are in the same neighbourhood.” Bush was never able to recover public support in his second term, sliding progressively lower in the polls until he hit 25 per cent and exited the White House to quietly take up oil painting in Texas. In his second-term slide, his party lost control of both houses of Congress. Obama wants to avoid a similar fate.

Republicans smell blood in the water. If they can seize the U.S. Senate, then, with the House of Representatives already under their control, they could repeal Obama’s health care reforms, force through budget cuts and block his judicial nominees. Obama would spend the rest of his presidency banging his policies against a brick wall of opposition, with only a veto pen to hold back the Republican agenda. “It would scramble his plans pretty good,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of presidential politics at the University of Texas. “Any hopes for his domestic agenda in all its forms would be seriously diminished.” It would be a staggering fall from grace for a leader who began his presidency in 2009 as a historic figure with so much hope and promise—and the overwhelming approval of the country.

Obama’s plight is largely self-inflicted. The administration’s rollout of its signature health care legislation, the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, was so botched that instead of celebrating the achievement that eluded successive Democratic presidents, the President was forced to go on television to apologize to the nation. The man whose high-tech campaign machinery was able to keep track of what magazines his supporters subscribed to and what time of day they were most likely to respond to fundraising emails was not able to get the new health care website to work smoothly for two months after it was launched. After a 24-7 emergency marathon of technological interventions, the administration said the website was working much better in December, though there were still anecdotal reports of problems by users. In any case, the President’s reputation for competence and management was tarnished.

Worse still, Obama had repeatedly promised that any American who liked her health insurance plan could keep it. But as the new law took hold, some families began receiving letters that said their plans were cancelled, and new ones would be more expensive. They could shop for alternatives on the government website, but it wasn’t working. The drip of stories swelled into a gusher of negative press. Only a fraction of the people who were expected to enroll in the month actually did. Growing numbers of Americans now said they didn’t trust the President.

The debacle managed to sweep from view the fallout from the government shutdown that had left congressional Republicans highly unpopular and fighting with each other. The shutdown quickly fell from the headlines as each day brought more stories of Obamacare problems.

In the year ahead, Republicans hope the new health care system remains a mess they can lay at the feet of every Democratic lawmaker running for re-election in the November mid-terms. Calling Obamacare a “category 5 hurricane,” Greg Walden, the Oregon congressman heading up the Republican election effort, said he would keep it front and centre. Of Democrats who voted for the law, he said, “I think they’re in real trouble.”

Democrats are hoping that the early problems are short-lived, and that the spread in coverage to previously uninsured people will prove popular over time. Analysts say the law still faces many obstacles before it can be called a success. These include persuading healthy, young Americans to buy health insurance; without their premiums, the system will have trouble paying for older people with higher costs. The White House says it can steer through. “It’s been a tough patch,” White House political adviser David Plouffe admitted on ABC’s This Week. But he predicted it would fade in the new year as the President refocused the country on a fresh agenda. “Let’s fast-forward to the State of the Union and the months after that: health care working better, a lot of people signing up, economy continuing to strengthen, hopefully, no Washington shutdowns.”

With that vision in mind, Obama launched a campaign-style speaking blitz in December to promote the benefits of the health care law. “The law was worth a few grey hairs,” Obama admitted in remarks at the White House. He urged his supporters not to become discouraged. Comparing the health care reform to the civil rights movement and suffrage for women, he said, “Stuff that’s worth it is always hard.”

But even if Obama manages to rehabilitate Obamacare, he still has weakness on another important front: the economy. “The recession is technically over, but most Americans are not feeling much better about the economy,” said Doherty. Obama can take some solace in his personal record of recovering from dips in the polls. “Unlike Bush, he has shown an ability to come back,” says Doherty. “But this is the deepest hole he’s been in.”

Even without the President’s particular woes, the political landscape in 2014 offers some hope for Republicans. Their hold on the House of Representatives looks fairly safe. Democrats would need a net gain of 17 seats to get a majority in the 435-seat chamber, and history is not on their side. “No president’s party has ever taken back the U.S. House in a mid-term election,” says Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a congressional-race forecasting operation at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. And only rarely does a sitting president’s party gain seats in mid-term elections. (One reason: Weaker candidates who won because of a popular president tend to be voted out without his coattails to run on.)

The big prize in 2014 is the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now hold 55-45. A third of the chamber’s 100 seats are up. Republicans need a gain of only six seats to take a majority. “During the shutdown, we began to think maybe Democrats can hold onto their majority, but now it’s on a knife’s edge,” said Skelley. The impending retirement of three Democratic senators in the conservative states of South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana are a boon for Republicans, who are favoured there. In addition, there are several states where incumbent Democrats up for re-election are vulnerable: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Still, Republicans face a potential stumbling block in the internal party struggle over nominating candidates. Individual states hold their primary elections between March and September. In recent years, conservative activists and small-government groups have focused money and energy on these races as a means of electing the most conservative Republican candidates possible. This has occasionally led to Republicans losing seats they otherwise could have won because of fringe candidates. This time, business groups fed up with the hard-liners—and their willingness to inflict economic damage with the shutdown—have said they will be intervening to support more moderate candidates.

It will make for a lively political pre-season. “I would imagine that, if those groups put their money where their mouth is, it seems likely it would make it harder for Tea Party candidates to get through,” said Skelley. But it will take a fight. “At the end of the day, you’re talking about low-turnout primaries. The people who are going to show up to vote in a GOP primary are dyed-in-the-wool Tea Partiers, so I don’t know if they’re going to be able to stop a huge number of these individuals.”

The power of the Tea Party in the Congress will also be shaped by the November elections. The hard-liners faced a backlash after the shutdown but, ironically, it could hurt the party’s moderates who tend to represent states with more Democratic voters, should they decide to come out and punish the Republicans.

It’s shaping up to be a year heavy on politics and light on policy. “Right now, it’s difficult to see a path for any major legislation to happen in 2014,” said Skelley. “It will be a lot of theatrics and not a lot of productivity.”

The President has said he wants to pass comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the U.S. Republican leaders may also want to pass some form of immigration reform, in part as a strategy to make inroads with the growing population of Hispanics who voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2012. But the party also includes a large number of voices staunchly opposed to any policy that would reward people who came to the U.S. without authorization. Despite the political payoff for both parties if they deliver on this file, it’s hard to see whether there is room for compromise—or more strife.

Foreign policy is another wild card. Like many second-term presidents, Obama has more room for action on the world stage than in the gridlocked politics at home. He has entered into a risky six-month agreement with Iran that requires a freeze on nuclear-enrichment activities in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions. Republicans (and some Democrats) in the Congress opposed the deal. Depending on the state of Iran’s co-operation in the coming months, Obama may have a breakthrough on his hands, or an embarrassment.

With so much at stake in November, the year ahead offers a potentially big payoff to the side that manages to do the least fumbling, infighting and self-inflicted damage. “This is an extraordinary year in a lot of ways, because both Democrats and Republicans are very unpopular, Congress is unpopular, the President is losing support. The public is looking at Washington and saying ‘a pox on all your houses,’ ” says Doherty. Much of Obama’s agenda, and his legacy, depends on what happens in negotiations with Congress over government spending and to once again raise the ceiling on government borrowing in the spring. A standoff with hard-liners, or another shutdown, could turn American politics upside down. “The outcome in 2014 will depend greatly on how the Affordable Care Act is fixed going forward, and whether or not Republicans decide to jump off a cliff on fiscal issues, as they did during the shutdown,” said Skelley. As the first African-American President, Obama’s place in the history books is assured. But whether the final chapter is one of success or failure could be decided in large part this year.

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