The 2008 Election in America was one run at an exceedingly difficult time for the nation. The global economy was in the throes of the worst economic disaster since the Great Crash of 1929, American troops were still engaged in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and political disillusionment was at an all time high. Yet Presidential hopeful Barack Obama beamed with a confident image of change.
Six years on and halfway through his second term, Obama is visibly weary, lacking the fresh-faced zeal that won him so much support in 2008. His approval ratings are stuck at just 43%, down from 67% in 2009. After almost a year and a half, over half of Americans disapproved of his leadership. So how did America’s poster boy come by such a fall from grace?
The biggest blow to Obama’s popularity came from the ongoing political nightmare that is Obamacare. A progressive idea that he had hope to quickly push through Congress has turned into a drawn out affair littered with cross-party fights and a roll-out fiasco. Obama, to his credit, managed to push reforms through Congress, but in 2010, with mid-terms looming, came the Republican Party’s revenge. The Tea Party movement was strengthened and the Republicans took back the House of Representatives. From that moment, Washington has been a legislative hell for Obama, with the Republicans fighting him on every front.
Obama had planned for Americans to be able to buy health insurance online “the same way you'd shop for a plane ticket on Kayak or a TV on Amazon”. When people actually went to the site on October 1st last year to sign up, many found that the website had crashed, and did so another two times in the following week. The roll-out was such a mess that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius was forced to resign, criticising the administration’s predictions as ‘flat out wrong’.
The failure of Obamacare was only compounded by the fact it was Obama’s flagship policy. Like George W. Bush post Hurricane Katrina, Obama’s approval ratings have never quite recovered from the failure of his flagship policy. While the legislation is back on track, legal challenges have been made against Obamacare, threatening further derailment in the future.
Then there is the American economy. Since Obama took office, unemployment has fallen from 10% to 6% and 10 million new jobs have been created, more than every other advanced economy combined. With such a good turnaround it may seem a bit odd therefore that only 39% of Americans support his handling of the economy. The reason for this is much of the 10 million new jobs are ‘McJobs’, i.e. low paid, part time work. While GDP is up 8%, the average household income is only up 4%, and unlike with Obama’s predecessor there is no abundance of easy credit to keep people happy.
Another simpler reason for Obama’s fall in support is that he was simply destined to disappoint given the hype he generated back in the Presidential race of 2008. He was elected on a wave of optimism with the electorate hoping he would deliver on the change he promised. But politics is politics, there is only so much change one man can bring about.
America decided to give Obama a second term, and a second chance, though and the nation was full of confidence in an emboldened President that would bring about a fair economic deal. This didn’t last for long. From a January 2013 high of +13 in the Presidential Ratings (i.e. the difference between those who approve or disapprove of the president) had decreased by June and by November had fallen to -15. They still remain in -10 region.
Now Obama’s foreign policy is getting flak in the wake of Islamic State. Second term Presidents with domestic troubles often turn to problems overseas to shift attention and regain credibility. The exact opposite has proven true for Obama. Obama got into office campaigning for an end to US engagement in conflict in the Middle-East, which makes recent US involvement in Syria and Iraq all the more humiliating. The criticism is now coming from sources closer to the White House than Obama would perhaps prefer. Two former aides have published books criticising the President and his lack of leadership over Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan and the hands-off foreign policy doctrine which the president once famously summarised as “don’t do stupid stuff”. Old sparring partner Hillary Clinton diminished the President further (perhaps positioning herself for a 2016 comeback?) saying “Great nations need organising principles,” she observed, “and ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organising principle.”
The crux of the problem is now that Obama is six years in, he has to take responsibility for America’s woes. Previously the American people would gladly give full blame to Bush’s administration for problems such as ongoing war, high deficits and rising unemployment. But Obama can no longer use Bush as a buffer and explains why only 27% of Americans believe “things in the United States are heading in the right direction” according to a CBS/New York Times article.
With the Democratic Party vying for control of the Senate ahead of mid-terms it would appear the love affair of ‘08 is all but over.
By Rhiordan Langan-Fortune