Fewer than two years ago, President Obama was elected handily to his second term, becoming the first Democrat since FDR to twice win an outright majority of the popular vote.
Now, Democrats in competitive Senate races hope he stays as far away as possible, previous heartlands of support such as Iowa have turned against him and his approval ratings are languishing in the low 40s — sometimes lower.
“It is a near metaphysical certainty that in his last two years, he’ll confront the same House he has in the last four years,” said William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution who served as an adviser to former President Clinton during his White House years.
“So the question is, how are they going to deal with that? If they deal with the same House in the same way, they’ll get the same results.”
Galston advised a different approach. Obama would be “well-advised” to reach out to the Republican congressional leadership immediately after the midterm elections, he said, and should resist the temptation to dig deeper into a partisan trench.
“He should say ‘Look, all three of us now face the same choice. ... Do we want to spend the next two years messaging and preparing for 2016 or would we like to spend a few months legislating?’ ”
To be sure, the decline in Obama’s political fortunes cannot be blamed on the kind of major scandal that has marred other modern second terms, such as Watergate, Iran-Contra or the Monica Lewinsky affair.
That leaves observers who are sympathetic to Obama putting forth all kinds of explanations, even as Republicans suggest the dwindling support for the president was both inevitable and overdue.
Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to former President George W. Bush, believes Obama’s second term was over before it even started. He pinpoints the start of the problem as the “fiscal cliff” negotiations in December 2012, the month before Obama would take the oath of office for the second time.
Obama won the tit-for-tat fight. But Fratto argued that the president pushed Republicans so far into a corner on that occasion that there was no possibility of them working with him on any other issue.
“He got what he wanted and that was clearly a victory for him,” Fratto said. “But what I really don’t understand is why he thought the relationship would improve after that. It could only get worse, and it got worse.”
Democrats take issue with that characterization, contending that the GOP has taken an obstructionist approach to Obama since he was first elected.
More broadly, senior administration officials disagree with any suggestion that Obama’s second term has fallen flat.
They point out that the president has overseen an economy that has added 10.3 million jobs over 55 straight months of employment growth, the longest streak in recent history. The national unemployment rate fell to 5.9 percent in September, the lowest figure since 2008.
There is more to boast about than just the economy, the officials add. When it comes to climate issues, the use of wind power has tripled and solar power has increased tenfold, they say. And they highlight Obama’s second-term work on healthcare, noting that 10.3 million previously uninsured Americans are now covered.
But even former aides to Obama are casting around for explanations as to why his stock of political capital has depleted so rapidly.
“I’m still struggling to figure this out,” said one former senior administration official. “I think a lot of it boils down to this mindset that, ‘we all have the answers and we’re smarter than everybody else and we can do this.’ ”
This source said that the element of hubris was exacerbated by the “level of insularity,” adding, “I don’t know if the president has stopped trying or he’s tired of it but the White House seems to be perpetually in a bunker mode.”
A second former senior administration official suggested that a lack of focus had allowed erstwhile priorities like immigration reform and gun control to slip away.
“With immigration, the mistake was always letting other things become a bigger priority and not putting it [on the] front burner,” the second former official said. “Once it passed the Senate, they should have kept their foot on the gas. There was a lot more momentum at the time.
“Once you put it off, it’s over,” the former aide continued. “It should have never waited that long. It fell off the radar.”
Former officials and other observers agree that, above all, Obama has failed to connect with the American public, particularly on big, unfamiliar issues such as the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
This, observers say, could explain his low approval numbers. But the communications failure is particularly striking from a president whose soaring oratory played such a big part in his initial rise to prominence and power.
“The president is not engaging externally on a personal level,” said the first former official. “It’s all done through analysis and fact sheets. But he’s not someone with the retail side. I think he’s right on the facts but he’s wrong on packaging it and making people feel invested in it the way someone like Bill Clinton can.”
Recalling Obama’s now-famous 2012 remark that Clinton was the “secretary of explaining stuff,” Galston said he heard in that comment a “tacit concession” that Obama himself wasn’t particularly adept in that area.
But, as Galston explained, “When things are happening at home and in the world that are new and threatening, the president, as explainer in chief, becomes all the more important.”