Some critics say President Obama is too liberal. Others say he is too centrist. Still others consider him out of touch with the middle class. Whatever the reason, the polls suggest that his party will lose big in this November's midterm elections, which are becoming a referendum on Obama's presidency and Democratic rule on Capitol Hill.
But the real problem for Obama is not his ideology or his alleged isolation. It's that too many Americans don't think he has governed effectively on the issues that matter most, even though his party controls the House, the Senate, and the executive branch. What he needs is a significant victory to show that he can overcome the status quo and deliver on his promise of change.
Demonstrating some degree of mastery over Washington would not only give the Obama administration some momentum and a morale boost but also would allay fears that the capital has sunk into perpetual stalemate. Eighty-six percent of Americans now say the government is broken, an increase of 8 points since 2006, according to the latest CNN/Opinion Research poll. Barely 50 percent approve of Obama's job performance, and nearly 60 percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, according to Real Clear Politics' average of polls.
This is why healthcare legislation is so important to Obama's political fate. It has been languishing for weeks, with the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate unable to find a compromise and Republicans united in opposition. Obama tried to break the logjam with a much-ballyhooed healthcare summit on last week. But after it was over, finding a way forward seemed as elusive as ever.
Senior White House strategists acknowledge that the administration has serious political problems, but they chalk them up mostly to faulty public relations. As a result, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says that West Wing advisers have reviewed their communication strategy from the past year and decided to be more combative. "It's what every White House goes through," Gibbs said in an interview. "Look, part of it is you get here, and they give you the keys to the front door, and you're running the government. You got to just go. You eventually get a chance to step back and say, 'Oh, what does all this mean?' " Among the changes planned are a more rapid response to Republican attacks and taking a more aggressive approach to promoting Obama's efforts to create jobs and end the economic turndown. Gibbs says the emphasis now will be on making sure the public knows that the Republicans "have to be part of governing, which means they've got to come up with solutions, not just say no."
An indication that the White House finally realizes how badly it needs a victory came in the past few days when administration strategists and congressional aides said that they may resort to the "reconciliation" process to salvage healthcare legislation this year. That would mean using Senate rules to circumvent a filibuster, which requires 60 votes to end debate, and instead passing a bill with a simple 51-vote majority.
But Republicans say that it may be too late for Obama to restore his can-do reputation in time to influence the elections this fall. "His election was precipitated by Americans' loss of faith in institutions and his promise to restore faith in those institutions and in government," says a senior GOP strategist who has advised two presidents. "He's made things worse. Show me the jobs that aren't in the government sector—they're not there. Maybe there's not much Obama or the government can do, but jobs aren't being created, and Obama is being blamed."
Part of Obama's problem is that he has failed to deliver on key promises, such as his pledge to win passage for healthcare reform in 2009 and his prediction that his economic stimulus plan would hold unemployment under 8 percent. It's now at 9.7 percent. "He sets deadlines, and too often he pushes them back," says the GOP strategist. "He draws a line in the sand and then erases it."