The Washington Post

Americans are starting to doubt President Obama is a good boss

President Obama got elected on competence.

President \Obama speaks at the commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Class of 2014  in West Point, N.Y., on May 28. (Susan Walsh/AP)

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 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, 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.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.