A flop of a war will deflate a president's approval ratings. That was the case with Harry Truman with the Korean War, Lyndon Johnson with the Vietnam War and George W. Bush with the Iraq War. A victorious war, or at least an end to a war, will soar a President's ratings. That was the case with Eisenhower with Korea, George H.W. Bush with the Gulf War and Clinton with the non-combatant air surgical war in Bosnia. But all three presidents also saw their approval ratings drop at points during their terms. It almost always comes down to the one constant, the economy. If the economy is up, or perceived to be up, presidential approval ratings rise with it.
With Obama, there's more. The economy is less the issue, than the perception and reality, fiscal matters are too turbulent, unsettled, and even perilous. A surging Dow can't dispel that fear and unease. For the first time in recent memory, a rising number of Americans blame the Democrats, and President Obama, for the fiscal infighting, stalemate and mess that's become Washington's patented trademark. No matter how much or how often, Obama correctly, finger points the GOP for its pig headed, obstructionist, and dogged fight to stall a budget deal, it doesn't assuage public frustration and anger over the deadlock. There are 435 congresspersons, and 100 senators, but only one president, and he presents a popular and visible target, to dump blame on for the fiscal chaos. A budget, tax, or sequester deal, or even talks between Obama and GOP leaders on a budget resolution, would almost instantly see his approval ratings jump again.
But a few points slide in his approval ratings or the GOP's intransigence is not Obama's greatest problem. It's the heat that he's taking, and almost certainly will take more of, from Democrats. House Democrats have made it abundantly clear that no fiscal deal can include any tweaks by him, no matter how tepid, to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. Democrats repeatedly remind Obama that he, and they, was the big winners in the 2012 election. And there's no reason to give any ground to the GOP, especially since Democrats are adamant that much of the fiscal crisis is in part artificial, stage managed, political saber rattling by the GOP to play to conservatives, corporations and the financial industry. In greater part, it's a ploy to attack their favorite straw man and that's alleged tax and spend, big government obsessed Democrats.
Obama needs the GOP to cut a deal, which is the only thing that the majority of Americans want to see. But he needs Democrats not to put concrete barriers in front of it. This is the thorny price of governance.
Obama is a pragmatic Democrat who has to compromise on crucial issues, and there's no issue more crucial than fiscal matters, if he's to get anything accomplished. But the election was a double edged sword. Democrats have shouted they were the victors, and are in the political driver's seat, and Obama reflected that sentiment in making the GOP blink on scrapping the some of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. This raised the confrontation bar even higher, and expectations from Democrats even higher still, that Obama will keep the bar high with the GOP.
This ignores the truism in American presidential politics and that is that liberals and even progressives always run to the political left in election campaigns, and even for a short time, after winning office. They then soon move to the center.
Even when Obama spoke most passionately about change during his first election campaign he always kept the door wide open to reshape, massage, and contour policy issues to conform to what was pragmatic, doable and acceptable. He had the standard liberal reservations that the Wall Street bailout gave too much away to bad behaving, profligate spending banks and that massive tax cuts wouldn't do much to help the poor and the middle class unemployed. But he backed the bailout and tax cuts, albeit modified, to get the support of a handful of congressional Republicans. He opposed the Iraq war, but if he pushed for a quick and immediate withdrawal military conservatives would howl and dig in their heels to resist. He pragmatically talked about flexible timetables and a phased withdrawal. Eventually he got both.
Now the issue is entitlements, and what to do about them, if he's to get any movement in and with Congress on fiscal issues. It's a tough place for Obama to be in with the GOP loaded for bear against him, and Democrats ready to do battle hard against him on what they won't accept in a budget deal. It's a problem that's far bigger for Obama than the momentary drop of a few points in an approval poll.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.
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