The once-muscular presidency of Barack Obama has undergone a dramatic downsizing – in power, popularity, prestige and ambition – to the point where even Obama die-hards are starting to question his ability to right the economy or win reelection.Three polls in a single day Tuesday all told the same sorry tale – the avatar of hope and change, the slayer of Osama bin Laden, the president with dreams of a billion-dollar reelection campaign – is losing popular support and bleeding political power fifteen months ahead of Election Day.
“He has sort of lost the sense of power and mystique of the presidency,” says longtime Obama ally Andy Stern, former president of the powerful Service Employees International Union. “There’s also a sense that people aren’t scared of him. That’s very dangerous.”
That makes Thursday’s high-stakes jobs speech before a joint session of Congress all the more critical for the White House. It’s not only Obama’s last chance to take a big, bold stroke at spurring employment, it might be his final opportunity to reassert the dominance he lost last November to congressional Republicans, who seem united on nothing other than the desire see him fail.
It hasn’t been pretty. Last week, hours after Obama acceded to Republican demands he move his speech to a joint session of Congress on jobs from Wednesday to Thursday, his press secretary felt compelled to reassure Americans that no, the speech wouldn’t preempt the NFL’s Packers-Saints season opener.
The speech will now start at the un-presidential hour of 7 p.m., just to make sure no one misses a single pulled hamstring.
“If the address is done by kickoff,” joked one veteran reporter in the White House briefing room on Thursday, “does that mean he sees the speech as the pregame show?”
To Obama, this speech is anything but a joke. Obama’s advisers, wary of leaks and preemptive attacks, haven’t been sharing details of the proposals he will make with members of Congress in either party. But sources tell POLITICO he is considering some new approaches, including the possibility of drafting his proposals as an actual bill, something he hasn’t done much in the past.
And the White House seems genuinely eager for fresh ideas, with aides laying out the framework of his speech to columnists on Tuesday in the Roosevelt Room, and then to a gathering of top Democratic strategists that included former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, super-lobbyist and former Dick Gephardt aide Steve Elmendorf and Porter Novelli executive Kiki McLean.
The jobs speech, aides say, will be filled with action items, from new infrastructure projects, to the extension of the payroll tax credits – and possibly, according to one senior congressional source, an attempt to provide additional local funding for teachers at a time when they are being laid off by the thousands.
But to critics and allies alike, the fact that the president of the United State has to tip-toe around Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees for the privilege of delivering a plan for putting Americans back to work is a measure of just how far he’s been humbled by an unforgiving economy, unyielding GOP and an unnerved, underemployed nation.
“He’s allowed the Congress to manhandle him, said one top Democratic ally of Obama’s. “Every time he’s put his foot down they’ve kicked him in the shin. It’s embarrassing. He’s losing power. He needs to grab it back.”
For some, Obama’s slide has brought to mind the infamous 1992 Time cover on “The Incredible Shrinking President” that described the political death spiral of President George H. W. Bush, who went from a 80-plus approval rating in the aftermath of the first Gulf War to the private sector a year later.
White House officials say that Obama isn’t interested in his image and is willing to do anything, including occasionally losing face, to strike the appropriate balance between job creation and deficit reduction.
If Obama has a power problem, his aides say, it’s only because he has to share it with House Republicans, who have shown a suicidal willingness to push the country to the edge in pursuit of political gain and ideological purity.
“[Obama] fully understands the anxiety that is out there among the American people about the economy [and] the frustration at the pace of growth,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday.
On Thursday, when a reporter asked Carney if he felt the president “has gotten the respect from Congress that the office of the presidency deserves” he shot back, “The White House spends zero time worrying about that.”
Maybe they should. Dickinson College political science professor Andrew Rudalevige, who studies the modern presidency, says Carney’s attitude reflects Obama’s antipathy to the imperial vision of the executive branch embraced by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“Bush and Cheney did everything they could to see that the prestige and power of the office was never diminished – even though it was, through their actions…says Rudalevige. “Obama hasn’t objected to exercise power – look at Libya – but it’s not a priority with him.”
Polls paint an increasingly dark picture of how voters view the impact of what Obama has done.
Almost three in four Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to the POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll – a sharp spike in pessimism since May when 60 percent shared that view.
Since the start of the summer, Obama’s own approval rating, especially among independents and swing-state voters, has plateaued at the lowest level of his presidency, dipping to all-time lows in the Gallup daily tracking survey and other polls, from a once-rock steady low-to-mid 40s to the high 30s now.
An overwhelming majority of Americans, 74 percent, still like the president personally, according to the POLITICO/GW survey. But voters are far less confident than early months of his administration that Obama possesses the “right set of characteristics” or policy goals to be president, according to the NBC News/ Wall Street Journal Survey. More than 60 percent of those surveyed say they disapprove of the way the president is handling the economy, according to a third poll – this one by the Washington Post and ABC News – that came out Tuesday.
The graphs that plot Obama’s political fortunes mirror, nearly percentage by percentage, the country’s declining economic confidence. August’s flat employment growth was the latest indication of how the economic recovery has stalled and the Office of Management and Budget’s predicted last week that the unemployment rate will likely remain at 9 percent through next November.
“The data behind it is overwhelming,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who is working for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign. “It is clear that Americans are settling into the view that President Obama has not been the strong leader and the unifying leader that they hoped for and that his performance, particularly on the economy, is severely lacking.”
Obama has also made history, but not in a good way: He has presided over the first-ever downgrade of the country’s credit rating by Standard & Poor’s, and he was the first president to see his request for a joint session of Congress rebuffed.
Then there was his performance during the recent battle over the deficit. House Speaker John Boehner pulled out of negotiations for one terrifying week, preferring to transact business with Senate Democrats and, ultimately, Vice President Joe Biden. At one point, the speaker wouldn’t even return Obama’s call.
One thing the president isn’t reluctant to do: Give a big speech, even if critics warn that the pulpit isn’t quite so bully as it once was.
“Obama is still suffering from the Speech Illusion,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote last weekend. “The idea that he can come down from the mountain, read from a Teleprompter, cast a magic spell with his words and climb back up the mountain, while we scurry around and do what he proclaimed.”
And there is some evidence the speeches aren’t quite having the impact they used to.
Obama’s May 1st announcement of Bin Laden’s death was the most-watched TV event of his term, with 56.5 million staying up til midnight to hear the news.But other speeches haven’t been so well-received.
His two last nationwide addresses, discussing the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and the Libyan intervention ranked 13th and 14th among his prime-time addresses, attracted about 25 million viewers each, and some Democrats questioned the wisdom of staking his prestige on yet another big speech.
“The question isn’t what will the speech say. The question is what does he do after the speech is over,” asks a Democratic aide.
But Obama’s allies say he’s been through the fire before and will emerge stronger once the contrast between his jobs policies and those of the Republican field become clearer.
“They were using the ‘Incredible Shrinking President’ thing against Bill Clinton too, and what did he do? Win re-election by a landslide,” said Neera Tanden, chief operating officer with the liberal Center for American Progress.