President Obama returns to Washington on Monday after a two-week vacation that was neither restful nor productive.
From the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., to the airstrikes in Iraq, the ongoing tensions in Ukraine and the Middle East, and the execution of American journalist James Foley, it’s been a tough few weeks for the country — and for its leader.
Obama drew criticism from the left for not being forceful enough in speaking out on the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson and from the right over the death of Foley and the rise of the militant Islamic State. Then there was the golf; nine rounds during his 16 days on Martha’s Vineyard, including a trip to the links immediately after his condemnation of Foley’s killers.
That series of events left the impression of a disconnected president, frustrated with both the expectations and the limitations inherent in being the nation’s leader at this moment in history.
It also led to worries — expressed privately — among Democratic party strategists that Obama’s seemingly long-view approach to international and domestic conflicts could spell doom for the party’s chances in the midterm elections, which are only about 10 weeks away.
“The president is in a tough spot, and a lot of the problems aren’t of his own making,” said one Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the leader of the party. “That said, voters hold him responsible for what happens on his watch. After Ebola, ISIL, Ferguson and earthquakes, people start wondering if locusts are next.” ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now known as the Islamic State.
The question for Obama and the Democratic candidates and consultants whose fate at the ballot box in November is inextricably linked to his is what, if anything, can be done to turn around this story line of a president increasingly unable — or unwilling — to steer the country (and the world) in the direction he wants it to go.
J.B. Poersch, a former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who is now a political consultant, insists that the path back for Obama is the same as it has always been — talking about the economy in real-world terms.
“The president helps best when he’s taking up the argument for working people and whacking away at economic issues that matter — pay equity, minimum wage, affordable college loans and more,” Poersch said. “This was true in 2012, and it’s still true.”
And, in theory, the economy provides a positive story for Obama — and other Democrats — to tell. An average of 230,000 jobs have been added in each of the first seven months of the year, and the unemployment rate sits at 6.2 percent — the lowest it has been since September 2008.
Yet, despite the improved numbers, Obama — and his party — don’t seem to be getting much of the credit. Just over four in 10 voters (42 percent) approved of how he is handling the economy in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll conducted this month; the survey also showed Obama’s overall approval rating at 40 percent, the lowest measured by NBC-WSJ.
The reasons that Obama gets little credit for the economic improvements are many, including that many people don’t feel as though things are getting better in their lives (two-thirds of those surveyed in the NBC-WSJ poll were either somewhat or very dissatisfied with the state of the economy) and that the news of late has been dominated by chaos not just around the world but also within our borders.
Changing that conversation won’t be easy — even if Obama is committed to doing so for the good of his party this fall, according to Democratic operatives, who also acknowledge that the president’s numbers are complicating their efforts in the midterms.
“He has to make the case for our agenda,” said one Democratic strategist closely monitoring Obama’s effect on the campaign trail. The White House, the strategist said, launches an effort, makes “the case for a week and then moves on as if the case has been made. His opponents make the case against him — and against the government — every single day.”
What everyone outside Obama’s inner circle wonders is whether the president is truly committed to making that case in a sustained and forceful way in the weeks before the elections. Only one man knows the answer — and he’s not saying at the moment.