In retrospect, it is remarkable how quickly Barack Obama became a political pariah, and how thoroughly. In states where Obama’s victories had helped win him two presidential elections — the second just 24 months ago — his own party now shunned him. “Democratic senators in Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia,” the Times reported a month ago, “do not want him.” Not in Iowa, as it turned out, either. In many places, the gamesmanship of the election lay simply in Republicans trying to tie a Democratic candidate to the president, and the Democrat working furiously to avoid any connection. This weekend the president spoke at a single campaign event, in Detroit. On Monday — hours before an election he had called a referendum on his own policies — Obama spoke nowhere at all. “The Republican Party had one strategy it followed in nearly every Senate race: run against the president,” John Dickerson wrote this morning. “It paid off.”
We have become so accustomed to the country growing weary of a president at this juncture that there is a cliché for it, the Six-Year Itch, and the temptation is to see the collapse in the president’s reputation, and his party’s electoral reverses yesterday, as preordained. Three consecutive presidents, as Matt Bai pointed out, have now come into office with their own party controlling both houses of Congress and will leave the White House without control of either. And yet there is something a little puzzling about how rapidly Obama has become less popular — it has no obvious single cause. (His approval rating, around 50 percent at his reelection, now hovers around 40 percent, a drop that has nothing to do with the older, less diverse midterm electorate.) Ronald Reagan’s six-year reversal took place amid the historical disaster of the Iran-Contra scandal. The collapse of George W. Bush’s coalition in the 2006 midterm elections began with the horrifying scenes of Katrina. Obama’s political reversal in 2014 was of a similar scale, but with no clear precipitating disaster. The temporary failure of the government’s health-care website? The unhurried response to the gathering threat of ISIS? These seem like lower-amplitude failures. If you are an Obama partisan, it is likely you woke up this morning feeling both depressed and a little confused. What, exactly, happened to the president?
Obama’s approval ratings began to fall noticeably sometime around Memorial Day, 2013, but by one year later, at the beginning of this summer, they had acquired some specificity. One theme was incompetence. Which was more competent, a Fox News poll asked voters this June, Obama’s administration or Bill Clinton’s? Sixty-eight percent said Clinton’s. Obama’s or George W. Bush’s? Forty-eight percent of respondents picked Bush’s, and just 42 percent Obama’s. Another theme was weakness: 55 percent of respondents suggested that Obama had made the country weaker, and only 35 percent said he had made it stronger. The conservative case against Obama was somewhat less about ideology and somewhat more about weakness and incompetence. This explains the otherwise strange phenomenon of Mitt Romney becoming a far more desired speaker in contested elections than the president. “The Price of Failed Leadership” was the title of an op-ed Romney wrote attacking the president, and the theme of his talks. There were all these florid displays of strength from Republican candidates — that strange Ernst ad, for instance, in which she compared her mission to Washington to castrating hogs.
“It all comes back to one word: leadership,’’ the Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart said in September, explaining a poll he’d conducted for The Wall Street Journal and NBC News, which found that 54 percent of voters did not believe Obama could lead or “get the job done.” Hart said that the president “may be winning the issues debate but he is losing the political debate because they don’t see him as a leader.”
There is a whiff of mumbo-jumbo around the talk of “leadership.” Surely it is in part a kind of convenient code for all manner of sublimated racial, gender, and other biases in who we think looks like a leader. Even so, this wasn’t always a big problem for Obama. But over the past 18 months, it has become one. What is visible in the leadership numbers is a kind of gap, between what Americans expect a president to accomplish and what this one did, between the imperial myth of the presidency and the reality.
Some of this has less to do with Obama than with the real complexity of managing both a sprawling government and a chaotic world, and may help explain why the American public feels the Six-Year Itch. Our imperial rhetoric around the presidency is so grand that it inspires a version of what the Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, brilliantly, called the green lantern theory of the presidency — the notion that the White House carries such power that the President can accomplish any objective so long as he is willful enough. Perhaps by six years in, when any presidency is closer to the end than the beginning, the ways in which he has failed this impossible standard become clear, and more or less every president comes to seem a disappointment.
But this only makes Obama’s errors during the past 18 months more damaging, because they have played perfectly into this gap and helped give some tangible detail to the climate of disappointment.
The frustrating, avoidable disaster of the health-care-website rollout. The insistence that the NSA needed to spy on Americans to keep them safe, and that Americans did not need to be told, which allowed the Snowden revelations to become a scandal. The strangely ambiguous rhetoric around ISIS — that it was a generational threat, but not such a threat that it required ground troops. Some of these errors might be defensible, and none of them look anything like Katrina, or Iran-Contra. And yet the arc of Obama’s approval ratings in the two years after his reelection look very similar to Bush’s. In the aggregate, there was a similar effect. Drip, drip, drip.