Obama’s approval rating sinking. Can he keep his clout?

The job approval rating for Obama has now fallen below 50 percent in a Gallup poll – amid issues of jobs, healthcare reform, and Afghanistan strategy.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with members of his Cabinet at the White House in Washington, Monday.

No matter how you slice it, President Obama has a tough month ahead.

The Senate vote on Saturday to debate healthcare reform gave Mr. Obama a momentary victory, but he’s got weeks of haggling ahead and probably more than a few “perils of Pauline” moments to keep reform prospects alive.

As early as next week, Obama will announce his strategy in Afghanistan and a possible increase in US troop levels. Given the strongly held views in various political camps, he will face public criticism no matter what he decides. On Monday night, the president will hold his ninth Afghanistan strategy meeting with his war cabinet.

And then there’s the issue of jobs. With unemployment at 10.2 percent, it’s the No. 1 concern of voters, and Obama knows that. The administration’s hope is that healthcare reform can be wrapped up by the end of the year, so that the White House can be seen focusing on jobs like a laser beam.

But the administration also hopes the public will conclude that it can focus on two things at once – healthcare and jobs. On Dec. 3, the White House is holding a “jobs summit,” bringing together CEOs, small-business owners, and financial experts to hash out ideas. After that, Obama kicks off a “main street tour” in Allentown, Pa., for more jobs talk.

Amid all this, Obama’s job approval rating is sinking – now below 50 percent in the Gallup poll. It's a sign that he is losing the political capital he needs to make tough choices. Is there any relief in sight for Obama, as he closes in on his first anniversary in office?

“Holiday good cheer might buoy him a couple of points, but nothing will move him up decisively in the next month,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Through all these challenges – including a week in Asia that got less-than-rave reviews – Obama has maintained his trademark Zen-like calm. When asked about the lack of concrete accomplishments on the economy, global warming, and security during the Asia trip, senior adviser David Axelrod provided an answer that could have applied to any of a number of initiatives the Obama White House is juggling.

“This is not an immediate gratification business,” Mr. Axelrod told reporters in South Korea, the last stop on the trip. “Nobody came expecting that all of these things would be resolved on this trip. This is part of laying a foundation for progress.”

Throughout his presidential campaign, Obama showed an ability to weather criticism over short-term strategy, with obvious ultimate success: It is he sitting in the Oval Office, not Hillary Rodham Clinton or John McCain.

Now, the White House counsels patience, as journalists and commentators – answering to a 24/7 news cycle – poke at every perceived weakness.

Indeed, for every piece of bad news, sooner or later the White House seems to get its comeback. Congressional Democrats, nervous about next fall’s midterm elections, are issuing proposals for job creation – or even a second stimulus package. But almost as if in answer, The New York Times published a front-page piece on Saturday citing a growing consensus among nonpartisan economists that Obama’s first stimulus package is working. And on Monday, a survey of economists by the National Association for Business Economics indicated optimism that companies will begin hiring in the second quarter of 2010.

If the unemployment rate starts to decline by late spring or early summer, that would help the Democrats’ (and thus Obama’s) prospects in the midterms. But if job growth doesn’t begin until the fall, that’s too late. Voters' negative attitudes will already be set.


See also:

America the jobless: Ron Paul wins, Timothy Geithner loses?

Senate healthcare reform vote: ‘Now, the real debate can begin’


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