President Obama got elected on competence.
For all of the talk about "hope" and "change" — and both were powerful slogans for Obama in 2008 — the core of Obama's appeal to many independents and even some Republicans was the idea that he would restore competence back to the White House after President George W. Bush's eight years, years defined by mistaken intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and a mishandling of the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. Obama openly embraced the idea that he was the anti-Bush on nothing much more than his commitment to putting the best people in the right places within his administration. (Remember the whole "Team of Rivals" thing?)
As conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby writes in the Boston Globe: "Running to succeed the deeply polarizing George W. Bush, Obama held himself out not just as a leader who would never 'pit red America against blue America,' but as a natural-born manager whose hallmark was smarts and competence."
Which is what makes the series of problems within his administration of late all the more politically problematic for Democrats trying to hold onto their Senate majority — and narrow their House minority — this November. The current scandal engulfing the VA is the latest example of competence questions surrounding this White House, but they include everything from the rollout of HealthCare.gov to the targeting of tea party groups by a Cincinnati IRS office. While none of these problems are easily tied directly to a decision Obama made (or didn't make), they have all eroded the public's faith that he knows what he's doing.
"I think there is an increasing appetite and desire for just fundamental competence and accountability," said Republican media consultant Mark McKinnon. "A steady hand on the wheel. Or even a shaky hand on the wheel. Just find the wheel."
The collapse is striking. In CNN/Opinion Research Corp. polling in December 2008, more than three quarters of Americans said that the phrase "can manage the government effectively" applied to Obama; by March 2014 — before the VA debacle — just 43 percent said the same. A late 2013 Washington Post/ABC poll found a similar result, with just 41 percent of respondents saying that Obama "is a good manager." And polling by Pew also gets to this competence erosion. Here's their table on the question of whether Obama is able to get things done or not.
Now, it's worth noting that every president — those named Obama and those not — tends to have strong poll numbers on virtually every measure at the start of a term. And it's also true that those numbers — again, across the board — tend to fade the longer he's in office.
"I think that confidence in government competence started to be undermined with the war in Iraq and Katrina, the collapse of the economy and the roll-out of the [Affordable Healthcare Act]," said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. "It's hard to see how it gets much worse."
Maybe not. But Obama's numbers on competence are already low enough to trouble many party strategists charged with electing (or reelecting) Democrats to the Senate and the House. In conversations over the past several weeks with these folks, it's become clear that worries over Obamacare specifically have given way to a broader concern that the combination of the pained rollout of HealthCare.gov, coupled with the problems at the VA and other motivators of the Republican base (IRS, Benghazi), could combine into a toxic "This guy (and his party) don't know what they're doing" message this fall.
It's not clear whether Republicans have picked up on the "competence trumps all" message. The party does appear to be moving away from its insistence on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to a less absolute position focused instead on replacing parts of the law that they believe don't/won't work. And Republicans like Mitch McConnell have made quite clear that they believe their path to victory lies in tying their opponent to Obama.
As we saw with George W. Bush in the 2006 midterms, a collapse of confidence in competence can have disastrous effects. Not only does it serve as a jolt of energy to the other side's base, but it also can turn independents from your side and even dampen enthusiasm for your side. Given the seats Democrats need to hold to keep control of the Senate — Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina, Louisiana, etc. — any sort of damage done among independents might well be impossible for Democrats in those states to overcome.
What can Obama do? Hope that the VA scandal doesn't linger for months at or near the top of the news. Act swiftly to get rid of the people who clearly didn't do their jobs. (Obama started that process with Eric Shinseki last Friday.) And hope like hell there is no other management issue lingering in his administration that bubbles up between now and November.