Bobby Jindal’s make-or-break moment

February 14, 2013

It has not been a good week for Bobby Jindal.

The Louisiana governor not only has had to deal with the flashbacks to his widely panned, Kenneth-the-Page-esque official GOP response to President Obama's 2009 SOTU, thanks to Marco Rubio's "sip slip" this week, but he's also got problems back home.

Two polls in the last week have shown the once-immensely-popular governor slipping significantly in the Pelican State. And for a guy who many expect to be a 2016 presidential candidate, that's much more troubling than a four-year-old YouTube clip.


Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R).

A poll from GOP pollster Voter/Consumer Research late last week showed Jindal with a 46 percent approval rating, compared to 48 percent disapproval. Perhaps more strikingly, 37 percent of voters strongly disapproved of him -- a very high number given the overall even split.

A poll from Democratic automated pollster Public Policy Polling this week was even worse, with Jindal's approval at just 37 percent, compared to 57 percent disapproval.

Jindal political adviser Timmy Teepell said the polls are a momentary blip on the screen.

"Polls go up and down -- higher and lower based on who's paying for them," Teepell said. "Bobby is focused on creating jobs and growing the economy in Louisiana, and nothing's going stop him from doing that."

Even if you grant that the PPP poll has a Democratic bias, though, the same pollster just two-and-a-half years ago showed Jindal with an approval rating that was 21 points higher than it is now. And Voter/Consumer Research is a GOP pollster (though it was conducting its poll for a health care group).

What's more, this is the continuation of a trend for Jindal, whose approval rating had already been declining toward the 50 percent mark in the infrequent polls of the state's electorate. A Southern Media and Opinion Research poll from September showed Jindal slipping to a 51 percent approval rating.

Now, a 46 or 51 percent approval rating isn't all that bad today, especially given the tough budget-cutting times. And it's not like popularity in one's home state is a prerequisite for running for president (see: Romney, W. Mitt).

But unlike Romney, Jindal comes from a ruby red state where he's expected to succeed. And if his governance gets subpar marks from his state's conservative electorate, it will call into question his formidability on the national stage.

For much of his tenure, Jindal's approval has been in the 60s or even 70s. In fact, he was so popular that he faced basically no real opposition in his 2011 reelection campaign.

But since then Jindal has made some tough budget choices and has pushed some difficult education reforms. Perhaps most troubling for him right now is his decision to reject a federal Medicaid expansion -- a decision the Voter/Consumer Research poll showed is unpopular with the state's voters.

Jindal has been out front among Republican governors in rejecting the Medicaid expansion, even as a growing number of GOP governors have decided to take part. In fact, Jindal wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post last month about why he decided to reject the expansion.

The Voter/Consumer Research poll showed people disagree with Jindal's position by a 52-41 margin.

Louisiana political analyst John Maginnis summed up Jindal's struggles thusly:

The best reason is that he is trying to get some hard and controversial things done, and is taking heat for it.

After a conflict-averse first term, Jindal these days is taking strong forward positions on education, health care and taxes, the outcomes of which will largely frame his legacy and enhance, or not, his presidential aspirations.

...

But the real pressure on him now and part of the reason for his popularity decline is his drive to transform the state health care system within the hostile environment of the historic change of the national health care system.

Jindal’s stand on refusing to participate in the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, which would cover 400,000 currently uninsured at no cost to the state for three years, is not backed by public opinion.

...

At the same time, Jindal’s line in the sand finds fewer colleagues on his side of it, as more Republican governors reconsider and reverse their earlier opposition to the expansion.

As the pressure ratchets up, it seems so does the governor’s defiance, as expressed by Secretary of Health and Hospitals Bruce Greenstein, who told the Times-Picayune, “I want to make it absolutely clear. We are not expanding, this does not change our mind, this is not a good deal for the state.”

The fact is that any time a governor does tough things, the people of his or her state will initially raise their eyebrows. But if the last few years are any indication, it's that as long as those decisions are viewed favorably in the long term, a governor can and will recover politically.

Whether that happens is particularly important for Jindal. He has always been a great on-paper candidate for president, with perhaps the most dazzling resume among our top 10 contenders for the 2016 GOP nomination (running the state's health care system in his mid-20s, for example).

But he still has to prove to people that he's more than just a sheet of paper, and his performance in his final two years as governor will go a long way in determining just how strong a presidential candidate he would be.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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