You can understand President Obama's current political problems -- and how those problems could make things very tough for his party in this fall's midterm election -- in a single word. And that word is "competence."
Obama was elected in 2008 on a stated promise that he would restore competence to government. He pitched himself as the antidote to "Heck of a job, Brownie" and the Bush years, the person who would always put the most qualified candidate in every job in his Administration. That the basic functioning of government would never be in question.
Almost six years on from that election, however, Obama is faltering badly on the competence question and, in so doing, badly imperiling not only his ability to enact any sort of second term agenda but also Democrats' chances this fall. A series of events -- from the VA scandal to the ongoing border crisis to the situation in Ukraine to the NSA spying program -- have badly undermined the idea that Obama can effectively manage the government.
The latest evidence is a question in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Sunday that asks whether the phrase "can manage the government effectively" applies to Obama. Just more than four in ten (42 percent) said that it does while 57 percent said it does not. (It was the lowest that Obama scored on any of the six characteristic questions CNN asked in the survey.)
Obama's trajectory on the question is all to the bad for Democrats. Back in December 2009, more than three quarters of respondents in a CNN/ORC poll said that Obama was an effective manager of the government. By early November 2009 that number had dropped to 58 percent. It dipped below 50 percent for the first time in June 2010 and in the three polls in which CNN has asked the question since mid-November 2013, 40 percent, 43 percent and now 42 percent, respectively, have said that he is a good manager.
Again, this matters because so much of the Obama brand was premised on the idea that whether or not you agreed with him on issues, you knew he was not going to be George W. Bush when it came to running the government day to day. Increasingly, that is not true in the minds of many Americans.
The numbers on the competence question are even more troubling when you see it through the prism of the 2014 midterm electorate -- an electorate that is likely to be whiter and older than the one that re-elected Obama in 2012. Among white voters, 70 percent said that "can manage the government effectively" is not a trait they would ascribe to Obama. Among voters 50 and older, 62 percent say that Obama can't manage the government effectively. Eighty nine percent of Republicans say Obama isn't a competent manager while 76 percent of Democrats say he is. Two thirds of independents say that Obama ins't an effective manager of the government.
What those numbers mean is that if Obama is a major topic of conversation in the most competitive Senate and House races this November, that's a very bad thing for his party.