The new national poll from NBC and the Wall Street Journal is stuffed with bad news for President Obama. His job approval rating — 41 percent — is as low as it has ever been. Four in ten Americans say the performance of his administration has gotten worse over the past year. Large majorities disapprove of how he is handling foreign policy, which has been front and center of late thanks to the eroding situation in Iraq and the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap.
And yet, all of those bad numbers pale in comparison to how people responded to this question: "Thinking about the rest of Barack Obama's term as president, do you think he can lead the country and get the job done or do you no longer feel that he is able to lead the country and get the job done?"
Fifty-four percent — let me repeat, 54 percent — said that Obama "cannot lead and get the job done," while just 42 percent said he could lead. I asked the pollsters behind the NBC-WSJ survey for the party ID breakouts on that question, and here's what they sent me: 84 percent of Republicans said that Obama can't lead or get the job done, as did six in ten (61 percent) of independents. (Just one in five Democrats agreed.)
That is an absolutely remarkable vote of no-confidence in Obama's ability to do the job he was elected to do. Yes, I know that Republicans are going to be against virtually everything Obama is for and that independents these days tend to be swollen with the ranks of disaffected GOPers. And yes, I am aware of the fact that Obama doesn't need to win any more elections. (Thanks to Democrats on Twitter for that reminder!)
But, what Obama does have to do is be president for the next two and a half years. And he'd like to spend that time building some sort of second-term legacy for himself. The leadership numbers — if they sustain — badly complicate those efforts.
First, it robs Obama of any leverage with Congress. Now, it's absolutely arguable as to whether a Republican-controlled Congress — particularly if the GOP takes over the Senate this fall — would be willing to work with Obama under any circumstances. But with the public losing confidence in his ability to lead, it scares Republicans not at all to oppose him at every turn.
Second, and more importantly, leadership is the sort of x-factor characteristic that a president can use in either battles with Congress or attempts to persuade the American public to see things his way. Obama's pledge to go around an obstinate Congress — which he laid out in his 2014 State of the Union address — is dependent, at least in part, on his ability to connect with the public on issues of import to him (and, presumably, them.) If people don't think Obama is a leader — or trust his core competency to do the job — then his chances of getting big (or even biggish) things done is drastically reduced.
Remember that the vote for president — and the way a president is perceived/judged in office — is different than that of any other elected official in the country. The vote for president and the perception of that person once they get into office is based heavily on the idea that this person can lead us to a brighter future — even if what that means is different for everyone. When you lose the idea that you can -— and should — lead, trying to work your will with the public becomes difficult. (The debate over whether any president can actually "lead" is a worthy, but different, one.)
In the final quarter of his presidency, Obama's mind will increasingly turn (if it hasn't already) to the mark he can leave on the office and the country. With leadership numbers like those in the NBC-WSJ poll, Obama may become a bystander as his legacy is constructed.