December 7, 2015
President Barack Obama is approaching his final full year in office, seemingly under siege. His signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act to supporters, Obamacare to the larger number of detractors, is suffering from higher premiums and lower rates of insurer participation.
Republican candidates uniformly vow to repeal and replace, making it one of the few things they all agree about. He ran on closing Guantanamo. It’s still open.
He ran on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Troops were (mostly) removed from Iraq, now we have ISIS/ISIL. Troops will now remain in Afghanistan through Inauguration Day 2017.
He ran for re-election on having saved General Motors while killing Osama Bin Laden. Today, to many ISIS seems as dangerous as Osama ever was.
The Iran nuclear agreement is controversial at best, and several leading GOP candidates vow to tear it up on their first day of office.
You can understand how the president might be a little low energy these days. Dealing with ISIS-inspired domestic terrorism is not how he wanted to ride off into the sunset. The presidency is an exhausting job under the best of circumstances.
No two-term president wants the rebuke of having their successor defeated at the polls. In this case, the stakes are particularly high as a Republican victory probably also means GOP control of Congress.
Republican hegemony over both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue might not lead to as much change as some conservatives would hope, but it would definitely put a large dent in the Obama Legacy. If nothing else, many of his executive orders would quickly get reversed.
Obama finds himself relying on frenemy Hillary Clinton to protect said legacy. Ironically he needs her to win the third consecutive Democratic term her husband was denied, thus putting Obama one up in his competition with Bill.
But Hillary is not the safest of vessels to carry his hopes. She’s not very popular, running a negative to noticeably negative favorability rating in recent polling.
With Joe Biden on the sidelines, Bernie Sanders is not an acceptable backup. Even were he to get nominated and elected, his would not be a third Obama term. Rather he is running on the idea that the president, however well intentioned, didn’t do enough.
So, Hillary is the better bet. However, there’s another problem. He wants to avoid a third Clinton term, tying her closer to continuing Obama policies than resuming where Clinton 42 left off.
How exactly do you get your former Secretary of State, someone without the best political skills, someone closely tied to your foreign policy, one seemingly unraveling, elected?
How do you do this in a way in which she runs toward you next fall instead of away from you, making sure her mandate is to continue what you started?
Plus, Obama’s approval rating (45/54 today as measured by Rassmussen) is normally upside down, spending the bulk of his second term within a couple points of where he sits today. At no time since polling began has a net negative president seen his successor elected.
Keep this in mind when you consider what the president was trying to accomplish in his somewhat awkward (podium in front of his desk) Oval Office address last night.
Nobody was very impressed. Republicans panned it for being empty calories. Democrats weren’t exactly inspired. Anyone expecting circa 2008 levels of energy or Churchillian prose were sorely disappointed.
He described current policy but offered no changes. He talked about gun control enough to upset Republicans, not enough to fire up progressives. At times he appeared more concerned about Americans saying mean things about Muslims than extremist Muslims killing Americans.
Today we saw the subtle political brilliance of that approach. While Obama is not and never was a particularly popular president, he’s never found himself truly unpopular.
Harry Truman and George W. Bush were positively toxic at this point in their tenure, with approval ratings in the high 20s. Unsurprisingly, their successors lost.
Though Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton each ended their presidencies more popular than Obama is likely to, each suffered dips which brought them a little below Obama’s worst.
Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter were all hounded from office with approval lower than anything the current president has experienced.
Less than 24 hours after the speech, one Donald J. Trump stepped into the president’s trap.
A few caveats. One, this may work to Trump’s benefit. Just because it’s what Obama wanted doesn’t mean Trump made a strategic mistake.
Two, I’m not suggesting Obama knew Trump would up the ante this much, this soon. He might have figured Ted Cruz was almost equally likely to start a fire.
Three, this didn’t require the president to choose between what he thinks is best for the country and what he thinks is best for him politically. He remained consistent with his previous policies and demonstrated ideology.
The president does not want to send tons of ground troops to the Middle East. He does not want a showdown with Vladimir Putin. He can’t assume full cooperation from Sunni allies in the region. He can’t guarantee the defeat of ISIS before Election Day, or the total safety of the American public.
As such, he’s unable to rally the country after terrorist attacks. In the few days after Paris, his approval rating dropped, only to pick up after the story switched to Trump (and to a lesser extent Cruz).
Post-San Bernardino, his rating began dropping again. Approximately 12 to 15 percent of the country is in play for him. As long as he sticks to his normal script, 40% support him and 45% detest him. Of the remainder, some, likely more than half, are very tone sensitive to xenophobia.
These are fairly educated voters, who definitely voted for him in 2008 (if they voted) and enough repeated in 2012 to beat Romney. Some are Independents, some are moderate Democrats, others moderate Republicans.
When he’s not too spastic, these voters like John Kasich. For all the talk of minority voters, millennial voters, single female voters making up the Obama Coalition and the “Emerging Democratic Majority,” the demographics to pull that off are still in the future.
To win, at least until those mentioned above are turning out at a higher rate, Democrats need educated, moderate, suburban, relatively well-off white voters to stay partially in their column.
In the 2010 and 2014 midterms, they didn’t. Lower turnout from the Electorate of the Future didn’t help, but the defection of these voters was the final blow. They do not like Trump and are skeptical of Cruz.
They most certainly do not and will not agree with preventing Muslims, however secular, from stepping foot on American soil. Many were likely not sure about accepting Syrian refugees. Their congressional representatives broke with Obama on that. This is very different.
Apparently, Trump is even in favor of blocking American Muslims currently overseas from returning, though he is not suggesting citizens currently in the U.S. be deported.
This whole conversation was unfathomable a week ago and is not something that will endear Republican candidates to the above mentioned voters. Candidates like Kasich and Jeb Bush predictably condemned Trump quickly and loudly and were met with The Donald pointing out their poll numbers.
This will improve Obama’s approval ratings by just enough and help keep Hillary above water in pseudo comparisons to Republican candidates, thus fomenting dissent on the GOP side as insiders stick fresh pins in their Trump voodoo dolls.
It also helps Obama on the policy side. He doesn’t want to do anything too dramatic and now has a favorable distraction to make him seem like the reasonable one to a majority of mainstream opinion makers.
Again, this does not mean Trump made a tactical mistake or that he or Cruz are now less likely to get nominated or are very unlikely to win next November. It will make the GOP establishment very uncomfortable and does help to keep the 2008/2012 Obama voters on board.
To win, Trump or Cruz will have to turn out a bunch of less-educated white voters who stayed home in 2012. They may succeed in doing so, but Obama would rather take his chances on keeping people who did vote on board than worrying about those who stayed away from the polls.
Well played Mr. President. You don’t win election twice without some skill. The two-time defending champ is still in the game.