On Tuesday night, two things happened.
At first glance, these two events have little in common. But modern politics is all about narratives and storylines. And both of these events confirm a growing concern from the public about President Obama: That he's just not up to governing his administration and, by extension, the country, effectively.
A new CNN/ORC national poll reveals the problem. Asked whether Obama can "manage the government effectively," nearly six in 10 (57 percent) say that statement didn't apply to the president. Compare that to where Obama stood just before he was inaugurated, when 76 percent of respondents in a December 2008 CNN/ORC poll said he was an effective manager, and you see just how far he has fallen. Not only that but in the most recent CNN/ORC poll, Obama's standing on the "effective manager" question was the lowest he scored on any of the 11 characteristic questions asked in the survey.
Here's why that number -- especially in light of the Secret Service and Obamacare stories over the last 24 hours -- should scare President Obama and the Democratic Party. It goes directly to the heart of why he was elected -- as an anti-George W. Bush, a person who, above all else, was competent at handling the basic affairs of government. Here's how we put it way back in December 2008 in a post entitled: "Barack Obama and the cult of competency":
Barack Obama won the White House last month in large part by running against George W. Bush and tapping into the public perception that his administration has been ineffectual in handling important policy questions. So it's not surprise that in the first month of his transition to the presidency, the president-elect is putting a premium on competence above all else.
From his decisions to bring in former rivals (is everyone sick of the "Team of Rivals" references yet?) to his repeated emphasis on the qualifications of each of his nominees for the Cabinet, Obama's first month as the president-elect seems designed to serve as a point by point refutation of the way Bush handled the White House over the past eight years.
Where John McCain was marginalized/punished following his 2000 primary challenge to Bush, Obama put his main primary rival -- Hillary Rodham Clinton -- into one of the most important spots in his Cabinet. Where Bush was seen as installing his Texas team into the White House, Obama has purposely avoided putting his closest Chicago confidantes (with the exception of Valerie Jarrett) into high-ranking positions.
The worst thing that can happen to a president is to lose the confidence of the American people. It's why Hurricane Katrina and the Michael Brown debacle were so incredibly damaging for George W. Bush's presidency. Once the public decided he was not able to competently carry out the basic duties of the office, nothing he tried to do from that point forward gained any traction since he was seen as a deeply flawed messenger. His approval ratings plummeted, and he watched as his party lost control of both the House and Senate in 2006.
Obama isn't in that position -- or even close -- yet. But the next six months -- the time leading up to the November midterms -- are a critical time for him and his party. Can Obama turn around doubts about his ability to manage the country and, in so doing, improve his overall job-approval numbers? If not, he could find himself without a Democratic-controlled House or Senate in January 2015, making any attempt to build a second-term legacy that much more difficult.