President Obama has been criticized, blamed and pilloried over the years, but he seems to be suffering from a new affliction. He feels misunderstood.
Obama is embarking on a legacy-burnishing media tour, giving lengthy magazine interviews and addresses in which he has mourned the American public’s lack of awareness of his big wins in foreign and economic policy and bemoaned his inability to better communicate those achievements in a fractured media environment.
“Saving the world economy from a Great Depression — that was pretty good,” he deadpanned recently.
Yet as Obama complains of being ignored by voters, they are weighing in on his presidency too — and appear to be more pleased than ever with him. Obama’s favorability is on the rise and he is now the most popular American politician being tracked by polls. With approval ratings in the low 50s, he is more popular than President Reagan was during his final year in office. One survey last week even showed that Americans’ approval of his much-derided strategy to fight Islamic State increased significantly in the last six months.
The disconnect between Obama’s complaints and the public's acceptance of him shows the perils of more than a decade in the Washington bubble. As much as aides insist Obama is focused on the long term, his laments show he seems to be absorbing Washington-flavored criticism anyway — the kind that his opponents find a reason to make no matter what he does.
Obama surely understands that he is on his set-the-record-straight mission at a time when Americans have an increasingly positive view of him and his policies, said James Thurber, a presidential historian at American University and author of two books about the Obama presidency. Nonetheless, “he would like more support for his policies and presidency,” Thurber said.
The midterm election of 2010, when Republicans took over the House and the tea party influence began to fuel a staunch opposition to Obama's agenda, helped create the political environment in which Obama has been trying to tell the story of his presidency.
Ever since, Obama has been in a defensive position trying to protect the gains — and sell the merits — of his first two years in office, when he passed healthcare reform and the economic stimulus.
But Americans just don’t get his economic achievements, he insisted to the New York Times Magazine last month.
“If you ask the average person on the streets, ‘Have deficits gone down or up under Obama?’ Probably 70% would say they’ve gone up,” Obama said “with some justifiable exasperation,” according to the magazine, because the deficit has declined during his presidency.
Polls show that a large majority of Americans believe the opposite to be true, setting up a challenge for the White House truth-squadding campaign.
“He’s been in a defensive mode since 2010,” Thurber said. “And now he’s in a defensive mood too.”
An impulse to set the record straight is not unusual for former presidents. President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to get biographers to focus on civil rights and Medicare over the Vietnam War. President Carter has told crowds he would have been reelected if only he had sent one more helicopter to get the hostages out of Iran.
President George W. Bush took a different approach, recalled Dana Perino, the White House press secretary for his final 18 months in office.
When aides would prepare briefing memos about his accomplishments to prepare him for interviews about his legacy, Perino said, Bush would discuss biographies he was reading about George Washington — “the first George W.,” as he put it.
It comforted him to think that, if historians were still dissecting the first president’s legacy, the 43rd could set aside anxiety about his own.
“I worried about his legacy more than he did,” said Perino, now co-host of "The Five" on Fox News. “I didn’t really see how wise and correct that was until a couple of years after the administration had ended. Because people’s perceptions about events and the consequences of decisions change over time.”
Obama seems intent on correcting what he sees as errors in the record now. A student of messaging, he knows the first drafts of history are being written.
“He can use the power of the presidency to get people to think differently about what he has done,” Thurber said. “And that’s clearly what he’s doing.”
Obama went on at length in an Atlantic cover story about his views on a dizzying array of foreign policy topics: the “Arab Spring,” Libya, even his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and whether the U.S. fight against Islamic State militants in Syria prompted Putin to send Russian troops into Ukraine. Obama's response appeared to betray some impatience with critics.
“Look, this theory is so easily disposed of that I’m always puzzled by how people make the argument,” he told the magazine. “I don’t think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational or cautious in his use of military force. And as I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does, Putin went into Georgia on Bush’s watch, right smack dab in the middle of us having over 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq.”
The return of the explainer in chief is due in part to the White House's concern over the effect that voters' muddled view of Obama's presidency could have on the coming presidential and congressional elections.
Democrats taking office in 2017 probably would keep Obama’s policies in place. Republicans are campaigning to dismantle them. The election's outcome is especially crucial for a president who bet so much of his accomplishments on wielding executive power, including the Iran deal and engagement with Cuba.
When voters are comparing economic strategies, they need to understand that Obama’s approach included reducing the deficit by three-fourths, said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
“It’s particularly important for people to understand as they consider whether or not they should elect someone who will build on that progress or scrap it,” Earnest said this week, trying to frame the election between Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump as a referendum on Obama's policies.
Part of the blame for faulty impressions rests with Obama himself, Thurber argued. Obama tends to wade in so deeply in any discussion of issues that he often leaves people confused rather than enlightened.
Some critics have a different take on the idea that Obama is misunderstood.
Maybe, they say, people understand what Obama has done perfectly well, and they just don’t like it.
“If you’re in Ohio, you think the stimulus package was a joke,” Perino said. “They’re not going to be convinced that it wasn’t just because the White House says we’re not getting enough credit for all that we did.”
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