As President Obama’s standing among voters slumped last fall, the president and his aides decided it was time for a course correction.
Polls suggested that many people who had voted for Obama now thought the president was spending too much time on healthcare and foreign policy instead of on the public’s top priority: fixing the economy.
So White House strategist David Axelrod and others proposed what they called “a hard pivot” -- a sudden, dramatic change in the president’s public profile.
Beginning in December, they decided, Obama would focus much more intently on creating new jobs, curbing the federal deficit and imposing tougher regulations on Wall Street, where bankers were about to collect big bonuses only months after receiving a huge federal bailout.
But the pivot didn’t happen fast enough. Obama had other pressing things to deal with in December -- like selling his plan for Afghanistan and laboring to win Senate passage of his long-delayed healthcare bill -- and that meant he couldn’t focus solely on the economy. The slow-motion pivot, which is still underway, was not enough to save the Senate seat in Massachusetts that Republican candidate Scott Brown won Tuesday -- or to prevent the near-panic that swept through Democratic ranks on Wednesday.
Now Obama and his aides will have to complete their course correction against new and stiffer head winds, which will make the maneuver even more difficult.
“If there’s one thing that I regret this year, is that we were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us, that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are,” Obama said Wednesday in an unusually self-critical interview with ABC News.
“If you ask the average person what was our stimulus package, they’ll tell you, ‘The bank bailout,’ ” Obama said. “And I can say, ‘Well, no’ . . . but it doesn’t negate that sense on people’s part that nobody is looking after them in an extremely tough situation.”
Obama said he understood the anger many voters expressed.
“Here’s my assessment of not just the vote in Massachusetts, but the mood around the country: The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office,” he said. “People are angry and they’re frustrated -- not just because of what’s happened in the last year or two years but what’s happened over the last eight years.”
The president said that he did not regret tackling an ambitious agenda that included not only healthcare but also energy policy, education and other issues. “If we didn’t take on healthcare, then when were we going to take it on?” he asked.
But he acknowledged that pursuing so many targets at once made it difficult to bring the public along.
“We can spread out what we do so it’s not so cram-packed,” he said of the coming years. “It doesn’t mean I back off the agenda of healthcare, or energy, or education, or financial regulatory reform, or dealing with our deficits. But it does mean . . . we’ve got a lot more time to explain to people why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
The president spoke on the first anniversary of his inauguration as the nation’s first African American president -- an occasion that would have been dominated by reflections on the decline in his political fortunes even if his party had not just lost the Senate seat held for almost half a century by the late Edward M. Kennedy.
When Obama took office a year ago, the Gallup Poll measured public approval of his performance at a dizzying 68%. Last week, the same poll reported his job approval at 50%.
That is not an unprecedented or even particularly foreboding decline for a president in a recession that has driven unemployment to more than 10%. In a similar economic crisis in 1983, then-President Reagan’s approval rating fell as low as 35% -- and he was reelected in a landslide the following year.
But the Massachusetts result sent a wave of fear through Democrats in Congress that their party could lose control of the House of Representatives in November’s midterm election, and prompted some to blame the unfinished healthcare bill. One leading Democrat, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, pronounced the bill dead Tuesday evening, only to retract the comment Wednesday.
Obama suggested that he’d be willing to see Congress pass a stripped-down version of his healthcare plan -- “those elements of the package that people agree on” -- although aides later said that he didn’t intend to rule out passing a more ambitious bill.
“The important thing is to get stuff done that matters,” said Mark Mellman, a pollster who frequently advises Democrats on strategy. “Find a way to get a healthcare bill done. It doesn’t have to be the one the Senate passed or the one the House passed.”
Then, Mellman said, the Democrats need to quickly shift the focus to jobs. “What [voters] see is the federal government spending a lot of money on banks and insurance companies, and that’s not helping ordinary people,” he said.
Not the end
A nonpartisan pollster, Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, said that Obama still had plenty of time to revive his popularity in time for the 2012 presidential election, especially if the economy continued to recover.
“This has not been the end of the world for Obama’s personal-approval ratings,” he said. “More people still say he has made the economy better than say he’s made it worse.”
Kohut says that Democrats in Congress, though, are likely to take a hit this fall.
“There’s strong anti-incumbent sentiment,” he said. “There’s not strong support for the Republican Party, but in hard times people will often vote for a party they don’t like all that much as a protest against the party in power.”
Does that sound familiar? “There’s a real parallel here with Reagan, who suffered big losses in the congressional election in 1982 but came back to win reelection in 1984,” Kohut said.