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Health-Law Rollout Weighs on Obama's Ratings, Agenda

November 11, 2013
The Wall Street Journal
Peter Nicholas and Colleen McCain Nelson

President Barack Obama, bogged down by problems with his signature health-care program, is seeing both his approval and personal-favorability ratings with Americans sag, creating new complications for his second-term agenda.

During past turbulence in Washington, Americans' approval of the job Mr. Obama is doing dipped. But in those stretches, Mr. Obama was buoyed by voters' general admiration for him as a person and by their trust in his credibility.

That has changed recently, particularly as thousands of Americans lose their insurance coverage under the health law's rollout, despite the president's pledge that anyone who liked their current plan could keep it.

The president has apologized to Americans about the insurance-cancellation notices, and he is taking other steps to shore up his political standing. But if his reservoir of personal goodwill continues to diminish, it could hamper him at a time when his administration is trying to repair the insurance website on which much of the Affordable Care Act rests.

An Obama administration official said the recent standoff over the government shutdown and raising the nation's borrowing limit was bound to take a toll on the president's popularity. "I think the president took on the least amount of water after that fight than any of the other actors involved," the official said.

Going forward, Mr. Obama wants to enlist the public as allies in the push to pass an immigration overhaul, expand access to early-childhood education and raise the minimum wage. All these goals already are drawing resistance from congressional Republicans, and if the public sours on him, the job is that much more difficult.

"His credibility is hurt, because he said things that aren't quite true," said Lou D'Allesandro, deputy Democratic leader in the New Hampshire Senate, referring to the vow that Americans could keep their health plans. "Unless a couple of dramatic things happen, he could be a lame duck by January."

The president said he had intended to make good on the pledge but that the administration hadn't been as clear as it should have in describing the law. "Obviously, we didn't do a good enough job in terms of how we crafted the law," Mr. Obama said in an NBC News interview last week.

Only 41% of Americans viewed Mr. Obama in a positive light in a late October Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, with 45% holding a negative impression of him. That marked Mr. Obama's all-time low as president—and the first time more people saw him negatively than positively.

A more fluid measure of Mr. Obama's standing—the public's assessment of his performance as president—is now also sliding. Only 42% in the late-October poll approved of the job he is doing, a low in Journal/NBC surveys, with 51% disapproving.

A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center found the president's approval rating at 41%, down 10 points since May. Pew's pollsters compared Mr. Obama's fortunes to the slide that former President George W. Bush saw. At a comparable point in Mr. Bush's second term—after Hurricane Katrina had hit—Mr. Bush's job approval stood at 36%.

By contrast, second-term support for Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan held steady in Pew polling, with 58% and 62% of the public, respectively, approving of their job performance at a similar point in their presidencies.

Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House official, said that Mr. Obama's "political success depends on maintaining trust" and that the White House must work to keep intact this "most precious leadership asset."

"Second-term presidents have hit those moments when they lost the trust of a critical mass of the public…which effectively made them lame ducks," Mr. Lehane said. He said he doesn't believe Mr. Obama has reached that point.

Mr. Obama also is facing an increasingly uneasy Democratic contingent in Congress, with some lawmakers worried the rollout of the health law might damage their election prospects. Last week, Mr. Obama met with Democratic senators facing re-election in 2014, some of whom aired their complaints about the implementation of the health law. Later, Mr. Obama flew to Louisiana on Air Force One with one such senator, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu. After the plane landed, the president and Ms. Landrieu went separate ways: Mr. Obama to a port in New Orleans, Ms. Landrieu to an event in the western part of the state. Her office said she had a previous commitment.

Mr. Obama has little influence with the Republicans he needs to make policy gains, and his sliding poll numbers figure to only weaken his hold. Susan Estrich, who managed Democrat Michael Dukakis's 1988 campaign for president, said the president needs Republican cooperation to score policy achievements, and "the more popular he is, the more clout he has at the table."

But it is difficult for Mr. Obama to work in bipartisan fashion because of GOP animosity toward him, some policy activists said.

Advocates for an immigration overhaul, for example, say they don't want Mr. Obama to play too overt a role in negotiating directly with House Republicans, for fear that his involvement would only stiffen their resistance. The more Mr. Obama talks publicly about immigration, "the more they would not want to do it, because it would be associated with him," said Frank Sharry, head of America's Voice, a group dedicated to revamping the immigration system.

Mr. Obama says he has retained the public's confidence. "I think for the most part, people know that I speak my mind and I tell folks what I think and I've been very clear about what I'm trying to do," he said in last week's NBC News interview.

Amid signs that some of the president's decline in polls has been due to Democrats drifting away from him, the White House is reviving a push to raise the minimum wage, an idea that faded from view after Mr. Obama proposed it in his State of the Union address this year. He is also again talking about new federal spending on highways and infrastructure, which he has cast as a job-creation program.

In recent days, Mr. Obama also has sharpened his rhetoric. At private fundraisers, the president is portraying the Republican Party as a destructive force, held captive by an extreme faction that is willing to do harm to the country if it suits that group's political agenda. Presidents are always able to raise money for their party, and Mr. Obama has been doing so as the 2014 midterms approach. Last Wednesday, he spoke at two party fundraisers in the Dallas area. On Friday, he appeared at three more Democratic events in Florida.

Mr. Obama has asked supporters for time—and patience.

"Sometimes I worry, because everybody had such a fun experience in '08—at least, that's how it seemed in retrospect," the president said in Texas. "And 'yes we can' and the slogans and the posters, et cetera—sometimes I worry that people forget change in this country has always been hard."

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