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With Three Years Left To Go, Obama Remains On Defense

President Obama waves as he departs Love Field Airport after shaking hands with supporters Wednesday in Dallas.
Tony Gutierrez
President Obama waves as he departs Love Field Airport after shaking hands with supporters Wednesday in Dallas.

Just a year after he won re-election, President Obama's second term is already feeling long and fairly fruitless.

It could get worse.

It's typical for second-term presidents to enter the doldrums, but in Obama's case the feeling that he can't accomplish very much set in early. The hopes he stated last year that his re-election would "break the fever" of unyielding Republican opposition to everything he proposed turned out to be misguided.

"The president is clearly at his weakest point in his presidency so far," says GOP consultant Whit Ayres.

House Republicans consider everything Obama proposes to be dead on arrival. The major legislation that he pushed through while Democrats still controlled Congress early in his term — the Affordable Care Act — remains contentious.

The fact that its rollout has been politically disastrous thus far has put the president on the defensive. A Gallup poll released Tuesday showed Obama's approval rating at a low ebb of 39 percent. Other polls have also registered slippage.

Obama and other Democrats can blame Republicans all they want for being intransigent — and they will. But the fact that the two parties are in an unceasing mode of castigating each other doesn't bode well for any future deal-making.

"As long as Republicans control the House and see some prospect they can control the Senate next year, they're not going to do a thing to cooperate with this president," says William Schneider, a senior fellow at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.

Honeymoon Got Canceled

Soon after winning re-election, Obama achieved one of his goals — a tax package enacted at the start of the year that had the effect of raising income tax rates for top earners.

But that package only delayed by two months the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. Obama has been unable to replace those cuts or reach any kind of broader budget agreement with Republicans that would end what he has described as a cycle of lurching from crisis to crisis.

Last month's deal that ended the partial government shutdown called for a joint House-Senate committee to address larger fiscal concerns. The committee met once publicly, then adjourned for a month.

On other issues, Obama has failed to get traction. The Senate-passed immigration bill — a major second-term priority for the president — appears to have no life in the House.

Obama and his agenda are "vastly more popular" than the GOP, says Democratic consultant Jim Jordan.

"But we can count on the Republican Party to continue to obstruct policy that the public roundly supports," Jordan says. "The president's legislative prospects aren't particularly bright, as I think the White House will concede."

The Problem Of Obamacare

Republicans look at Tuesday's election results and see no evidence they suddenly need to embrace the president. Instead, they look at the most important Democratic victory, in the Virginia gubernatorial race, and see hope for their side.

It ended up being a closer race than predicted. But more than that, exit pollsindicated that voters blamed both parties equally for the shutdown (OK, 3 percent more blamed the GOP), while a majority disliked Obamacare.

"This race came down to the wire because of Obamacare," defeated GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli said in his concession speech Tuesday. "That message will go out across America tonight."

There was instant debate about the validity of that argument. But while the health care law may or may not ultimately prove a great boon for the country, in political terms there could be more pain to come for Obama and his party.

Obama's broken promise about people being able to keep insurance plans they liked has so far applied only to the relatively small market of people who buy coverage as individuals. If Americans who are covered through employer-backed plans see cost increases or other changes, Republicans will be sure to blame the law that bears the president's name.

"For Republicans, it's like the anti-war movement was for Democrats in 2006 — it's what they live for, fighting Obamacare," Schneider says. "They'll stop at nothing, including shutting down the government."

Polarization Continues

For a two-term president, Obama is "weirdly nonpopular," says Henry Olsen, a political analyst at the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center.

Despite an economy that's remained middling at best throughout his time in office, Obama retains a firm base of support. But, in an era of strident polarization, he hasn't been able to win over sustained support from solid majorities in polls.

"The thing to remember is that the core of each political party thinks that the other one is inherently illegitimate," Olsen says. "Both sides prefer stasis to action at this point, because both sides believe they will win the longer the battle is prolonged."

That means Obama — the most prominent politician in America who will never seek office again — remains in an ongoing campaign mode, trying to sell ideas that his opponents will never accept.

"Very little is now possible that wasn't possible before," says Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth College. "He looks like a very typical second-term president — not so popular, the agenda's stuck, a little bit of scandal is starting to creep out and he's hunkering down to ride out the rest of his term."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.