What a difference a few weeks make. When the government shutdown ended, support for Obamacare had ticked up seven points in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. The GOP, the tea party, individual Republican leaders and shutdown squad inciters — all down in the polls. Then the country stopped talking about the shutdown and started talking about Obamacare.
Now, according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, President Obama’s approval is down to 42 percent (tied with his all-tie low) and his disapproval is up to 51 percent (also tied with his worst number). The generic number for the GOP for Congress bounced back from a -8 for the GOP to -4. As for Obamacare, 52 percent think it should get a major overhaul or be repealed. Republican Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.) has a higher approval to disapproval rating (+16) than Hillary Clinton (+13) while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is in negative territory (-11) as is the GOP (-31). In short, the public doesn’t like Obamacare, the president, the GOP brand and the shutdown instigator. (As I’ve said, “any governor over any senator” should be the GOP’s slogan in 2016.)
NBC’s Chuck Todd described this plunge in Obama’s ratings as the public “increasingly losing confidence in his leadership.” Now, other negative story lines have been out there for a while (e.g. Syria, the National Security Agency), but the big change since the last poll was the 24/7 focus on the signature legislation that bears his name. It does not work, no one including Obama seems to know what is going on and a certain segment of the electorate and a lot of the media think the president mislead us on aspects of the plan. With each day there are more reasons to discount what he says.
On Wednesday, another incident played out. GOP lawmakers insisted Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius turn over the number of those who have enrolled in the exchanges. She claimed it could not be done. But up in Boston, the president declared, “And more people are successfully buying these new plans online than they were a couple of weeks ago.” House GOP leadership pounced on the obvious inconsistency. Majority leader Eric Cantor (Va.) put out a statement: “Today, President Obama said that enrollment in ObamaCare is greater this week than it was two weeks ago. Clearly the President has access to enrollment data that his administration continues to hide. President Obama should be honest with the American people and release the enrollment data he based his remarks on. After a speech designed to distract from the misleading statements the President has delivered for four years on the ability of people to keep their current plans, it is time for some transparency.” The newest game in Washington is to debate which of the president’s statements were false and whether he is hopelessly confused or shockingly dishonest.
Meanwhile, there is some change afoot in the internal dynamics of the House and Senate. The shutdown squad and its influence have shrunk dramatically. A GOP senator yesterday bluntly told me, “They were obliterated. They didn’t get anything.” Even if Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) won’t accept that reality, virtually the entire Senate GOP caucus does. And it is more unified and constructive in its outlook than it has been since Obama took office, according to multiple staffers and senators with whom we’ve spoken since the shutdown. In that unity you find senators more optimistic about a mini-bargain or progress on discrete issues, although they are well aware that Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seems bound and determined to accomplish nothing. In both the House and the Senate, the sense of fear and intimidation that the shutdown advocates unleashed has largely evaporated. More constructive voices of mainstream senators (Tennessee’s Bob Corker, Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte) speak with more authority and confidence.
In the House, Paul Ryan (Wisc.) is firmly in control of the budget process, although he has kept expectations low. The House leadership has renewed confidence that comes, as Winston Churchill said, with the exhilaration of being shot at to no effect.
In short, there is some sense the grown-ups are back in the saddle in the House and Senate GOP, Obamacare is a disaster that requires nothing but oxygen (the GOP can recede from the spotlight) and Republicans have a second lease on life. None of this is to say that everything can’t reverse itself yet again. But the premature crowing by liberals at the end of the shutdown misread the staying power of the public’s annoyance with the shutdown and overlooked the potency of the Obamcare debacle.
If the GOP can get out of its own way and ignore the extremists inside and outside Congress who ginned up the shutdown fever, they might get through this. The right-wing echo chamber, though, is still firmly in place for many members. As the GOP senator put it, “A lot of people up here drink their own bathwater.” But that chamber, members have learned, is rather disconnected from reality and finding themselves out of touch with their own voters may remind them to listen less to talk radio and more to constituents.
As for Obamacare, Republicans should acknowledge that it is not they who will hobble the legislation, but the law’s own unworkability and the president’s repeated missteps and misrepresentations. Provided they don’t get hijacked again by the right wing, the GOP may wind up the year in a much better spot than they imagined just a few weeks ago.