Obama's triumphs are also his weaknesses: Health care, stimulus, financial reform

President Obama's domestic agenda has been as ambitious as any president's in the last 50 years – including health care, economic stimulus, and financial reform. But such ambition has not always been rewarded by voters.

By , Staff writer

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    President Obama met with members of the armed forces and their families in Washington July 4. His approval ratings have flagged despite a series of legislative successes.
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After 18 months on the job, Barack Obama has made his mark as the do-something president.

Economy near collapse? Less than a month after taking office, President Obama signed a record $787 billion stimulus package. Comprehensive health-care reform? Obama succeeded, after a grueling year-long legislative process, where predecessors going back decades had failed. Credit-card reform? Check. Student loan reform? Done. Financial regulatory reform? Close.

To Obama supporters, this burst of activity represents a welcome record of accomplishment after eight years of damaging Republican rule. To critics, it is an abomination marked by runaway deficits, dangerously high public debt, and government overreach.

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But on one aspect there is no doubt. Obama has not won many new fans with his activism. After winning the election in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote, and taking office with popularity ratings well into the 60s, Obama's job-approval ratings have declined steadily into the mid-40s – and stand at just 38 percent among independents, according to Gallup. Neither will his Democratic Party be rewarded for this activism in the November midterm elections. In fact, a conservative backlash against Obama's agenda, fueled by, but not limited to, the "tea party" movement, points to an electoral wave that could topple the Democratic majority in the House and cut deeply into the party's big majority in the Senate.

Obama's political peril comes as no surprise to analysts, who see a history of presidents courting trouble by doing big things. True, the president's party typically loses seats in the midterm elections. But even Democrats are starting to worry out loud that their ranks could suffer far more than the average 24 House seat loss, potentially shedding the 39 seats Republicans need to take control.

"Great legislative success can generate great political opposition," says Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. "There also might be a more cerebral Obama at work. Meaning, these are problems he thought were essential, and he'd rather go down in four years or be weaker in his second term, if he could get some of these problems solved. My guess is it's a mix."

In addition, if Obama had scaled back or given up on health care, he would have discouraged his base supporters, which would have dampened Democratic enthusiasm for the midterms even more than it already is. And chances are, Obama's job-approval ratings were going to decline regardless of what happened on health care, as soft Obama supporters (mainly independents) discovered he was not a miracle worker.

At the heart of Obama's problem lies the economy, with stubbornly high unemployment and fears of a double-dip recession. Americans vote their pocketbooks, and if they don't like what they see, many voters will rebel. And even as the Obama administration touts the jobs that have been created and saved via stimulus spending (mostly saved, and mostly in the public sector), and blames Republicans for blocking an extension of unemployment benefits, the bottom line is still wanting, and the party in power owns it.

Obama also prides himself in being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. He regularly heads out into the heartland for "Main Street" economic speeches designed to reassure Americans he's on the case. But Obama has also held tight to the big, ranging agenda he campaigned on two years ago – succeeding on health care, though taking far longer than he had planned, and close to completion on Wall Street regulatory reform. Energy and climate change legislation remains in limbo, and comprehensive immigration reform is not even in the starting gate. On education, Obama speaks of having launched "the most aggressive reforms in decades." Then there are the wars, no small matter, with Iraq winding down as the United States refocuses its efforts in Afghanistan.

Add to all this the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which started in April and remains a full-on crisis. Add, too, the other "explosions" that can divert Obama's (and the media's) attention for days, such as the recent blowup in the US command structure in Afghanistan. Of a less explosive nature are the two Supreme Court vacancies Obama has had the opportunity to fill; his second nominee, Elena Kagan, appears on track for confirmation.

William Galston, a domestic policy aide in the Clinton White House, speaks of the clash between Obama's agenda of choice – that is, the agenda he ran on – and the agenda of necessity, dominated by the economic crisis that broke late in the campaign. Obama has tried to do it all.

"The consequence of that decision substantively, in the long run, may well work out positively," says Mr. Galston, chair in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But just as I feared, the politics of the short term have not. You didn't have to be Cassandra to foresee that."

For voters, the question is whether leaders are focused on the issues the public cares about most. If so, then the public will "give them some credit even if progress is slow," Galston says. "But if they seem to be doing other things, then not only will [the public] not give them credit for those things, but they will debit your account for taking time, attention, and energy away from what they think is most important."

Obama's decision to press ahead on a major health-care reform package instead of an easier, pared-down version – against the advice of some of his closest aides – created at least the appearance that he was less engaged on the economy. Health care took until March 2010 to finish, well beyond Obama's original summer 2009 deadline, and while some elements are popular, uncertainty over how the whole package will play out in practice leaves a majority of the public uneasy.

"Politically, the trouble with the focus on health-care reform is it's unpopular," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "It may well have positive long-term effects, but those effects won't become apparent for a long time. Meantime, the Democrats have a midterm to contend with."

Another question is whether Obama could have been doing more on the economy. Mr. Pitney suggests the big stimulus package could have been more heavily oriented toward infrastructure. "Even though there was a lot in the stimulus bill, there are still a lot of unmet needs, as anyone who's driven on a highway can attest," he says. "And the political advantage of that is that it would have been extremely visible."

Going forward, the door to more stimulus spending is only barely open. Before the July 4 recess, most Senate Republicans (and one Democrat) successfully blocked the latest extension of unemployment benefits, citing mounting deficits and debt. After a successor to the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia is named, the legislation is expected to pass.

But with less than four months until the Nov. 2 midterms, there's virtually nothing Obama can do about the economy that will affect his party's prospects. After November, the legislative ball game could change, with reduced Democratic clout. Obama may well have to go back to the drawing board on his big agenda.

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IN PICTURES: Inside President Obama's White House

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