President Obama heads into his confrontations with congressional Republicans this fall in a weakened state, with his administration off balance and his agenda stalled, and not just because of his straddling on Syria.
More important is the decline in Americans' optimism about the economy, which is in turn eroding public confidence in Obama and his policies. "People are getting gloomier about the economy," says political scientist Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution, a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton. "They don't see it getting better." And since that's the No. 1 issue, Obama is inevitably in a slump.
Only 27 percent of Americans think the economy will improve in the next year, the lowest level of optimism since July 2012, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. About 24 percent say the economy will get worse, and 48 percent say it will stay about the same.
Negotiations among Obama, fellow Democrats and congressional Republicans over the budget, a possible government shutdown, sequestration, the debt ceiling and health care seem to be a "tarpit" that will hold everyone down, and Obama seems unable to do anything about it, Galston told me.
Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, says that Americans want politicians in Washington to stop fighting and "get something done," and their failure to do so is hurting the ratings of incumbents from Obama to the leaders of the House and Senate.
The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which McInturff helped to conduct, finds that only 45 percent of Americans give Obama a positive rating on how he is performing his job, with 50 percent disapproving; 52 percent disapprove of his handling of the economy. The Democratic party's favorable rating is 40 percent and the Republicans' is 28 percent, although on some issues such as the economy and foreign policy the GOP has rebounded somewhat.
Obama's handling of the Syria crisis has worsened his political problems because he didn't project strength or inspire confidence that he had a firm grip on the situation, strategists of both major parties say.
But Obama is trying to move beyond the Syria question and return to emphasizing domestic issues. He told ABC's "This Week" Sunday that House Republicans are behind Washington's dysfunction. He criticized GOP legislators for insisting that his health care law be defunded as part of a bargain to raise the debt ceiling.
"I think it's fair to say that never in history have we used just making sure that the U.S. government is paying its bills as a lever to radically cut government at the kind of scale that they're talking about," Obama said. "It's never happened before. There've been negotiations around the corners, because nobody had ever presumed that you'd actually threaten the United States to default."
But Matthew Dowd, former strategist and pollster for President George W. Bush, said, "This president is fast becoming irrelevant in Washington." Dowd said Obama's situation today reminded him of Bush's plight after the weak federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "At that point in time it was basically the beginning of the end of President Bush's presidency," Dowd said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
Among the problems plaguing Obama, Dowd added, are his response to the crisis in Syria, government spying on Americans, the Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups, and the continuing unpopularity of his health-care law with many Americans.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.