Rough Seas Ahead

Will the economy, the oil spill, and Afghanistan conspire to sink Obama's presidency?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  July 14, 2010

COMMANDER IN GRIEF From the Gulf oil disaster to the debacle in Afghanistan, Barack Obama is facing tough challenges no matter where he looks.

Eighteen months after Barack Obama took office with the largest plateful of troubles of any president in recent memory, it would seem only fair for him to finally get a stretch of smooth sailing. That doesn't look like it's in the cards. From the stalled economic recovery, to the oil lapping upon our southern shores, to the increasingly bloody war front in Afghanistan, the coming months appear to be just as challenging as the ones behind.

And the public's patience may be wearing thin. You'll recall the punditry debating, as Obama took office, how long he would have until Americans began holding him responsible for the recession and wars he inherited — six months? A year? Two?

The line may be here, at a year and a half. Until recently, polling has consistently shown that the public (aside from core Obamaphobes) still hold George W. Bush and Wall Street responsible for current economic conditions. That's starting to change. "I think that Obama is getting more and more blame every month," says Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

That hasn't brought down Obama's approval rating much — although it has dipped from 49 percent in January to 46 today, according to RealClearPolitics's average of polls — but by now, at the end of four straight quarters of economic growth, the number should be going up, and it isn't.

A majority of Americans have little or no confidence in Obama's ability to make the right decisions, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll. A variety of pollsters and pundits now predict a savage repudiation of Democrats in November, possibly saddling him with one or both chambers of Congress under Republican control.

Such things don't seem to worry the president much. In the 2008 campaign, and since taking office, "No Drama" Obama has refused to operate in response to current poll numbers.

"He doesn't try to win every news cycle," says Seth Masket, assistant director of political science at the University of Denver. "He's less mindful of public opinion now, and more cognizant of what it might be in different scenarios in the long run."

Obama is right that public opinion will come back to him when things go well. But things are increasingly stacked against that happening. To effectively handle the continuing and looming troubles, Obama needs cooperation from Congress, business, foreign leaders, and even everyday citizens. Without popular backing, he increasingly can't get them to follow his lead. That's making the problems worse, which of course drives his popularity, and authority, down further. If he doesn't reverse this soon, he'll enter next year with disaster all around — and he'll have his hands full just to keep the GOP from undoing what he has accomplished so far.

Economic psychology
The country shed 125,000 jobs in June, and other indicators have brought back fears of a double-dip recession — three months after a string of solid indicators prompted Newsweek magazine to declare AMERICA IS BACK! on its cover.

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