Flailing Obama needs health fix

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President Obama has to get healthcare working smoothly if he is to have any chance of breathing life into his second term, according to Democratic strategists and other observers.

The Democrats were speaking before the announcement of an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program over the weekend, and they also acknowledged that Obama cannot ignore the rest of his agenda, including climate change, immigration reform and efforts to improve the economy. But, once the initial flurry of coverage over the Geneva accord subsides, it remains likely that healthcare will overshadow everything once again.

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“Until this thing is working better, the conversation is naturally going to go to, ‘Is this thing working? When is it going to work?’” said Steve McMahon, a veteran of Democratic campaigns including Howard Dean’s 2004 White House bid.

Doug Thornell, another Democratic strategist, said Obama should “absolutely” push for immigration reform and his economic and job proposals, “but the priority has to be getting the Affordable Care Act headed in the right direction.”

Republicans are convinced ObamaCare’s problems have placed a millstone around the president’s second term.

“They are in quicksand, they are in ObamaCare quicksand, and there is no easy way out,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, a former GOP leadership aide. “People are assigning blame and responsibility over ObamaCare to the president himself. It no longer rests on the shoulders of [Health Secretary Kathleen] Sebelius, and he is taking on a lot of water.”

Opinion polls buttress the argument. The president’s approval ratings have declined sharply. The most recent numbers from Gallup’s daily tracking poll, released Friday, indicate that the share of the population disapproving of Obama’s job performance outnumbers those approving by 15 percentage points, 54-39. 

Beyond simple job approval numbers, Obama has also taken a hit in terms of the public view of his credibility and values. Two polls earlier this week told similar, discouraging stories for the president.

A CBS News poll found that the share of adults believing Obama to be “honest and trustworthy” had declined by 11 percentage points since last year, to 49 percent from 60 percent. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 50 percent of adults and 52 percent of registered voters did not believe him to have those virtues.

Those findings are particularly troublesome for a president whose appeal has always had a powerful personal aspect, first propelling him to an uphill victory over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008 and later allowing him to weather severe economic storms on the way to reelection.

Insiders who are sympathetic to the president’s predicament insist that reestablishing a belief in his integrity and competence will be crucial to his efforts to recover this time.

Chris Lehane, who worked as a senior aide in President Clinton’s administration, said that Team Obama needs to do “everything they can to make the case that this is a credible White House. It can be small things, but you need to put a series of those things together, so people will say, ‘Okay, they said they were going to do X, Y and Z, and now they have done X,Y and Z.’

“It is very much predicated on maintaining a trust ‘brand’ with the American people,” Lehane added. “It needs to be our north star that we are trustworthy.”

In recent weeks, a number of comparisons have been made between the botched website rollout and the effect of Hurricane Katrina upon the second term of President George W. Bush. 

The comparisons apply less to the human effects — Katrina killed approximately 1,800 people —  than to the belief that an inept response on a high-profile issue can capsize a presidency, especially in the second term when political capital is already declining.

Lehane is among the Democrats who argue that such comparisons are overdone, insisting that Obama still retains a reservoir of goodwill that in Bush’s case had been drained by the Iraq War even before Katrina hit.

“People forget Katrina came after Iraq, came after WMD,” he said. “For Bush, Katrina was more ‘three strikes and you’re out’. This, if anything, is a first strike.” 

Still, the question of how the president can move ahead looms large. Even though Republicans were on the ropes after last month’s government shutdown, the roles have now reversed and Democratic hopes for next year’s midterms are now severely muted.

When it comes to the rollout, “essentially, the president is being subjected to a rather lopsided negative advertising campaign against him and his signature program because of the (understandably) brutal news coverage,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “If Obama can't get his approval above 40 or so, it's hard to see how the Democrats are going to be able to do anything positive in the 2014 midterms.”

Last week’s move to change the Senate rules could help Obama somewhat. Whatever the long-term impact, in the short-term, his regulatory polices are probably safer from legal challenge.

The Iran agreement has the potential to be a major accomplishment, but questions loom large as to how successfully it can be implemented.

Soon enough, healthcare may look, again, like the only game in town.