Phil Schiliro, then the White House congressional liaison, put his boss on notice last year. One hurdle stood between him and the start of his re-election campaign: lifting the debt ceiling.
While President Barack Obama couldn’t control the European financial crisis or the Arab Spring, the fight over the nation’s borrowing limit was forewarned. Yet the White House didn’t engage immediately; got pulled into fruitless negotiations over a broader budget deal; and finally had to make major concessions at the brink of default.
The fight over raising the debt limit is one example of the administration’s strategic missteps that have contributed to the record-low approval ratings for Obama and sparked internal White House dissension.
Administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the consequences of the botched debt ceiling negotiations were so devastating it hemmed them in at every pass. They also emboldened Republicans bent on fulfilling Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge to make Obama “a one-term president.”
The president has acknowledged his fallen standing, calling himself the underdog in the 2012 presidential campaign in an interview with ABC News Oct. 3. In a press conference today, he said his adversaries could be at more risk.
“If Congress does nothing, then it’s not a matter of me running against them. I think the American people will run them out of town,” he said. “I would love nothing more than to see Congress act so aggressively that I can’t campaign against them as a do-nothing Congress.”
The more aggressive tone is the product of post-debt ceiling meetings in which Obama assessed the damage, identified mistakes, and adjusted his messaging and his team to put his candidacy on a stronger course, according to Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who is close to the White House.
“Their new approach is to speak out for what they believe in and take it to the American people,” he said.
To that end, the president has embarked on a series of out-of-town trips, pitching his $447 billion proposal to create jobs directly to the American people even as Republicans in Washington -- and some Democrats -- have said they won’t pass it. He made one recent trip through Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota, and another foray scheduled for Oct. 17-19 will take him to North Carolina and Virginia, two more important electoral states.
Swing State Interviews
Obama held a news conference about his jobs plan today, his first since the summer. He has held two rounds of interviews with regional reporters from swing states, including Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, and salted in national television interviews in an effort to regain control of his own narrative.
“There is no question that we have turned the page on what was a tough summer and are headed in the right direction,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. “Until we have an actual opponent where we can have a debate about the future, the president will be judged by the present.”
Obama also is trying to streamline the day-to-day management inside the West Wing. With Chief of Staff Bill Daley at the helm and senior adviser David Plouffe managing political strategy and message, it was at times unclear who was in charge of the process during the debt debate, said people aware of the internal dynamics who requested anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
Since then, senior adviser Pete Rouse has been re-engaged in handling more of the daily operations, said people familiar with the internal adjustments who spoke on the basis of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to discuss personnel matters.
By an array of measurements, the public’s judgment of current conditions is a harsh one, and the White House in some cases has contributed to its own problems.
Almost 8 in 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track in the Bloomberg National Poll published Sept. 14, and just 9 percent of people say they are confident that the nation won’t slide back into recession.
The September Labor Department data due Oct. 7 will probably show that gains in U.S. payrolls were too small to reduce joblessness and the unemployment rate is expected to stay at 9.1 percent, according to a Bloomberg News survey of economists.
“We have one of the largest proportions of people saying the country is going in the wrong direction and that’s usually a signal that people throw incumbents out,” said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “A jobs program is not a job. There is a great deal of cynicism.”
Confidence has eroded at the state level, too. In Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida recent polls found that a majority of those surveyed said Obama didn’t deserve re-election.
“If we don’t beat him, who are we going to beat?” asked Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “I can’t imagine this country continuing the Obama presidency four more years given the evidence that his policies are failing the country.”
Not Better Off
In his new messaging, the president doesn’t try to dissuade the public of its economic plight. Americans aren’t “better off than they were four years ago,” he said in the Oct. 3 interview with ABC News and Yahoo. “They’re not better off than they were before Lehman collapsed, before the financial crisis, before this extraordinary recession that we’re going through.”
That approach is raising questions about Obama’s leadership. Absent his ability to deliver on a better economy, the president needs to make people feel like things can and will improve, as President Ronald Reagan did in his 1984 “Morning in America” re-election ad, said political strategists.
“It’s hard to be a cheerleader,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic polling expert and president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates. “It’s certainly not morning in America, and it is a question of what’s going to make us feel as though things will be better, things will be more positive.”
Complaints about Obama’s stewardship are now coming from the president’s base. “We’re supportive of the president, but we’re getting tired,” said Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, one of the last liberal bastions to begin voicing criticism. “We don’t know what the strategy is.”
The hardest hits to absorb may be those the White House brought on itself.
For instance, administration officials announced the president’s intention to unveil his jobs plan to a joint session of Congress before getting a firm agreement from House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. Boehner objected and the White House, after initially dismissing the speaker’s concerns, was forced to cede its position and Obama gave the address a day later.
By sitting down for an interview with journalist Ron Suskind, Obama gave credibility to the author’s book depicting the president as an ineffective leader unprepared to deal with the economic crisis. It quoted former Obama economic adviser Lawrence Summers as saying, “There’s no adult in charge.”
According to Durbin, the August meetings “assessed what he had been through in his efforts, his overtures to Boehner, to Republicans, and how little he managed to bring home for it.”
Although the economic data is grim, Blendon said Obama still has an opportunity to turn things around. “It’s not clear that people are convinced yet that Republican candidates or the Republican Party” would do better, he said.
Obama is going the route of President Harry Truman, who rallied voters against a “do-nothing Congress” in 1948.
“If Congress does something, then I can’t run against a do-nothing Congress,” Obama said today. “There are too many people hurting in this country for us to do nothing, and the economy is just too fragile for us to let politics get in the way of action.”
Truman’s approval rating was at 36 percent in April of that year and he began his second term in 1949 at 69 percent, according to Gallup. Truman won re-election, though, with an election-year unemployment rate that averaged 3.8 percent.
“With Harry Truman, for all of his faults and all of his shortcomings, voters in 1948 knew exactly who he was and what he was,” said Hart. “Given all the vagaries of that year, they came back around to him.”
Since World War II, no U.S. president has won re-election with a jobless rate above 6 percent, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, who faced 7.2 percent unemployment on Election Day in 1984. The administration’s own forecast, matched by private economists, is for a jobless rate of more than 8 percent in the last quarter of next year.
To be sure, historical comparisons have limits because Obama has little precedent on which to model his campaign, according to H.W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas in Austin.
“He’s on foreign territory; no president has ever been in this position before,” Brands said. “Obama has done as well as anybody could under the circumstances, but that’s not saying a whole lot because these are really different circumstances.”
One positive for the president is that he enjoys high personal favorability ratings. Time may also work in his favor, especially as the Republican presidential campaign heats up.
“There is such a mood shift that goes on in American politics,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek. “It’s like the atmosphere. You can’t touch it, taste it, smell it or feel it, but it’s there. And it just shifts and these moods are very mercurial.”