WASHINGTON — The headline — “Poll: Obama Worst President Since World War II” — was both provocative and misleading. The Quinnipiac survey did, indeed, place President Obama at the top of the worst since FDR. But this was largely a measure of partisan concentration. Republicans were united in their unfavorable historical judgment of Obama. Democrats divided their votes (and would insist, I’d imagine, that they have more options to choose from).
We already know that Obama is a highly polarizing figure. But beneath the headline, the poll identified serious problems for the president. Fifty-four percent of respondents said the Obama administration is “not competent running the government.” (Shout-out to HealthCare.gov.) A majority believe the president does not have “strong leadership qualities.” Obama is solidifying a perception that he is out of his depth. Once made, such an impression is difficult to unmake.
And the failings of the Obama era are contributing to a deeper crisis for liberalism. Public confidence that government generally does the right thing is near an all-time low. In a recent Gallup poll, 79 percent of Americans agreed that corruption is “widespread throughout the government” — up from 59 percent in 2006. During a presidency that placed considerable trust in government, public trust in government has been badly shaken.
Obama is left with a job approval rating — in the low to mid-40s — that is about the same as when his party lost 63 House seats during the 2010 midterm elections. On the stump, his strategy is a ferocious peevishness. Republicans “don’t do anything except block me and call me names” — an accusation in the best rhetorical tradition of school yards everywhere. His promised use of executive power seems more like a confession of powerlessness in the normal political realms of persuasion and legislation.
On his executive orders, Obama challenges the House speaker: “So sue me.” As a former speechwriter, I’d advise greater care in the choice of catchphrases. When Ronald Reagan goaded Congress on tax increases with “Go ahead, make my day,” he was channeling Clint Eastwood. “So sue me” sounds like the guy who steals your parking space and taunts you afterward. Petulance does not signal strength.
On policy issues, Obama has few places to turn. Public impressions of the economy seem set. Obamacare is enduringly controversial. The IRS and Veterans Affairs scandals continue to unfold. Foreign policy hardly offers a refuge — as years of disengagement in the Middle East now require engagement on dramatically less favorable terms.
Obama therefore turns to the two issues that Democrats keep in their back pocket, confident that broad social currents are running in their favor: immigration and contraception. (I suppose many Americans, not just Democrats, keep contraception in their back pocket.) In the long run, the political analysis that informs this strategy is correct. The American electorate is becoming more demographically diverse and more culturally liberal on some issues. When it comes to Hispanic voters, younger voters and single voters, Republicans can seem out of touch (because they mostly are).
So the midterm contest sets up: “Out of his depth” vs. “Out of touch.”
But both of Obama’s surefire issues offer complications. The appearance of chaos at the border — fueled, in part, by rumors of an immigration free pass — may lead the Obama administration to seek procedural reforms that expedite the deportation of children. The only successful immigration legislation this session may be a border-control measure — signed by a president whose administration has already deported more than 2 million immigrants.
And the “war on women” conducted by the Supreme Court turns out to be narrow exception to a 2011 Health and Human Services regulation — an exception allowing a family-owned company to provide 16 types of contraception to its employees instead of 20. The court ordered the Obama administration, when it substantially burdens a religious belief, to pursue the “least restrictive means” of achieving its goal — which has been the law since Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993.
It is hard to imagine that the president’s use of cultural wedge issues will have much effect in battleground Senate races, conducted (this time around) mainly in red states. But even if it does — even if a deep blue appeal moves voters substantially — a historical reputation will be set.
“I don’t want to pit red America against blue America,” Obama once said. Now he organizes the sorting of America between red and blue. Best president or worst, he has left a nation more divided.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post. Reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2014 The Washington Post Writers Group.