x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Difficult July dims Obama glow

After six months in office, Barack Obama's honeymoon appears to be over, caused by a series of setbacks.

Barack Obama's signature initiative, healthcare reform, is bogged down in Congress, with other key policies in danger.
Barack Obama's signature initiative, healthcare reform, is bogged down in Congress, with other key policies in danger.

WASHINGTON // After six months in office, Barack Obama's honeymoon appears to be over. The US president has enjoyed some initial legislative successes and generally strong approval ratings, but this month he also experienced a series of setbacks and missteps, from his signature legislation, healthcare reform, bogging down in Congress to becoming involved in a racial controversy that many analysts believe he would have been smart to avoid.

No one is ready to declare Mr Obama's agenda dead in its tracks, or to say that he cannot reverse course with a string of victories in Congress. Conditions can improve - or worsen - on a variety of fronts, from Afghanistan to the economy, making it hard to say how much political capital Mr Obama will have in another six months. "Presidential popularity is not necessarily a straight-line decline," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "It's often more like a roller coaster."

If Mr Obama has been riding high, then he has hit an unmistakable downturn, at least according to the polls. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in July showed that 59 per cent of Americans approve of Mr Obama's performance as president and 38 per cent disapprove. Those numbers, which match George W Bush's at the same point in his presidency, are down from the 68 per cent approval rating Mr Obama enjoyed in February.

Since March, the number of Americans who say they trust the president has fallen from 66 per cent to 54 per cent, according to a recent Public Strategies Inc/Politico poll. The number of those who say they do not trust the president has jumped from 31 per cent to 42 per cent. The Hill, a newspaper on Capitol Hill, declared July a "disaster" for Mr Obama and the Democrats. "He is running out of political capital quickly," said Paul Light, an expert on the presidency and a professor at New York University. "Presidents are governed by a move or lose it philosophy. They either get it done and spend their capital wisely, or they come up on the beginning of September and find that Congress is less willing to listen and the public is more sceptical."

Many of Mr Obama's woes stem from his efforts to fix the nation's healthcare system, which he has framed as essential to fixing the economy. A deadline Mr Obama set for both chambers of Congress to pass health reform measures by the August recess will not be met. And some of his key policies are now in danger of being struck down by legislators. The House version of the bill is stalled in the energy and commerce committee, where fiscally conservative Democrats are concerned about the plan's cost. The Senate version, meanwhile, is stuck in the finance committee, where senators are mulling over a bipartisan compromise that does not include a public option, which Mr Obama strongly supports.

Last week, the president held a nationally televised press conference meant to assuage broad concerns about the reform effort. But he seemed only to add to his troubles when a reporter asked him to weigh in on the first major racial controversy to occur during his presidency. Using blunt words that surprised many, Mr Obama said that a white police sergeant, James Crowley, "acted stupidly" when he arrested Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard University professor and one of the country's top black scholars, who was at his home at the time. Police were called after Mr Gates forced his way through a door because it was jammed. The police claim that Mr Gates acted aggressively once they arrived and arrested him for disorderly conduct, a charge that was later dropped.

Many believe it was unwise for Mr Obama, the first black US president, to take sides in the divisive racial dispute at a time when he is seeking support for his most important initiatives. Indeed Mr Obama later apologised for his comment, and has since summoned Mr Crowley and Mr Gates to the White House for a meeting today. Other issues that have taken a toll on Mr Obama's standing include the country's rising unemployment rate, which stands at 9.5 per cent, the highest level in 26 years. When Mr Obama's advisers crafted a US$787 billion (Dh2.89 trillion) stimulus package in February, they predicted that unemployment would peak at eight per cent. Concerns have also mounted about the amount of money Mr Obama is willing to spend at a time when the federal deficit has climbed to more than $1 trillion.

Mr Light, of NYU, said the president can restore some of his momentum, but not all of it. "He can't go back to January and February, but he might be able to rewind the clock to April or May," he said. But not everyone sees such a gloomy outlook. Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University who studies the presidency, pointed to a number of Mr Obama's successes such as the passing of a bill to provide federally funded health care to an estimated four million children, and a recent vote in the senate to cut funding for the F-22 fighter jets, a move Mr Obama supported.

"He hasn't lost any major votes," said Mr Wayne. Still, he noted that the president could not possibly have met the messianic expectations some had in January. "The sad fact is, it is very much apparent now: he does not walk on water." sstanek@thenational.ae