The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The myth of Obama’s comeback

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Just a week after a shellacking at the polls, Barack Obama is back! Or so has been the suggestion this week -- on the heels of Obama's aggressive endorsement of net neutrality, his big climate deal with China, and leaks suggesting he's still going to go big on immigration.

The New York Times says Obama's "defying label of lame duck." Politico observes that "there’s already some swagger returning to his step."  The Washington Post notes Obama has said he wants to "squeeze every last little bit of opportunity" to push his agenda and in recent days "he has shown that he meant it." The New Yorker says, simply, that he's had an "unexpectedly good week."

This is a grand slam of assessment -- his brand is doing much better post-election than he says it did pre-election -- but it's way too early to suggest that he's somehow crawled out of the dark place that voters put him last week.

1. His job approval rating is still in the gutter. 

There haven't been many polls since last Tuesday, but Gallup's daily tracking poll shows Obama with a 41 percent approval rating, near the all-time low of 39 percent reached in the survey immediately following the mid-term election. His disapproval rating of 53 percent ranks just south of the 56 percent of Americans who disapproved of his performance in the same survey following the election. It's a bit better than what George W. Bush faced at this time, but much worse than how Americans rated Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton at the end of their sixth year.

2. His endorsement of net neutrality was no profile in courage, and he may not even get what he wants.

On Monday, Obama surprised many Internet activists and telecommunications firms with an unequivocal endorsement of net neutrality. Obama said he believes telecom companies like Verizon and Comcast should be regulated by the Federal Communications Commission effectively as utilities, requiring that the firms treat all Internet traffic equally. While it generated much buzz and was unusually flashy, this wasn't quite as dramatic as Obama's endorsement of gay marriage, for example, before the 2012 presidential election. As far back as 2007, after all, Obama had said, "I am a strong supporter of net neutrality." 

What makes Monday's pronouncement even less impressive is that the FCC may not embrace his view, as my colleagues Brian Fung and Nancy Scolla reported in a blockbuster story. Obama has appointed all five of the independent agency's commissioners, three of whom are Democrats, including Chairman Tom Wheeler. Yet Wheeler hasn't committed to Obama's preferred path.

3. The China deal is unlikely to be enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change and relies in big part on Obama's successor. 

The deal is no doubt important: It commits the U.S. to stringent goals for limiting the emission of greenhouse gases and, more importantly, represents the most significant pledge by China, one of the worst polluting nations, to take a leap forward in combating global warming. Yet, on its own, it will unlikely be adequate to stem the 2 degree Celsius rise in temperatures (over pre-industrial levels) that climate scientists warn would cause severe harm to the planet.

What's more, Obama relies on his successors following through. With the enactment of limits on emissions by coal-fire power plants and other measures, the president has put the United States on a path toward meeting its commitment. But a Republican president could attempt to dismantle or interfere with the new power plant rules, or show much less interest in continuing to increase fuel efficiency standards. An array of lawsuits also likely faces the power plant rules, which the EPA is still working to implement.

4. By acting on immigration, Obama is belatedly doing what he promised to do, and it has risks.

Obama is not backing away from his pre-election commitment to use executive authority to address the nation's broken immigration system in lieu of action by Congress, contemplating a proposal that might stop the deportation of up to five million illegal immigrants. In Burma on Friday, he said "this is something that needs to be done. It’s way overdue."

But, like with net neutrality, this is not a sudden, post-election assertion of power. Obama is merely, finally fulfilling a broken promise he made to the nation's immigrants back in June. When it became clear that House Republicans were not going to pass a broad overhaul of immigration law, the president promised to use his unilateral authority by summer's end. Conservative Democrats begged him to delay, worried that such an action could cost the party their hold on Congress. Obama acquiesced to the political pressure, breaking his word, but lost the Senate anyway. For failing to uphold his promise, Hispanic Americans shredded him, calling him "deporter in chief," and warned that 60,000 to 70,000 people would be deported just as a result of the delay.

The imminent executive action, meanwhile, is not cost-free. It almost certain kills any chance for comprehensive reform, not that the odds were great. And it could sour relations with lawmakers in the middle, like Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent that caucuses with Democrats, who's said that “it will create a backlash in the country that could actually set the cause back and inflame our politics in a way that I don’t think will be conducive to solving the problem."

5. The American people are looking to Republicans to make a difference. 

Six years into Obama's presidency, Americans surveyed by Gallup say that they are looking, by a 53-to-36 percent margin, "to have more influence over the direction of the nation." That's even more unbalanced than it was after the 2010 electoral drubbing. Meanwhile, 34 percent of Americans say the country will be better off as a result of Republicans' win, compared to 19 percent who believe we'll be worse off. Obama faces deep and broad skepticism among the American public, and that gives him a weak hand going into legislative battles to come.

6. Obama faces many obstacles and little time. 

Republicans have a healthy majority in the Senate and the largest majority in the House since 1949. After brutal disagreements about 2014 strategy, there's little love lost between the White House and Senate Democrats. As a result, Obama faces probably the most antagonistic Congress he's faced since coming to office. Not a great place to be during your final two years.

First up, the Senate is set to approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday after the House passed a measure authorization the project Friday. Obama has assiduously tried to avoid allowing the project to move forward, given concerns of many of his advisers that it would be harmful, symbolically if not substantively, to efforts to stem global warming. If Obama vetoes Keystone, as expected, he could worsen the already-bad odds of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who's pushing for construction of the pipeline, in next month's run-off. If he signs the legislation, he would have had his hand forced on a high-profile policy just two weeks after the mid-terms.

Next spring, Obama could suffer another bad defeat if the Supreme Court rules unfavorably in the King v. Burwell  case, which challenges the constitutionality of tax subsidies offered to low- and moderate-income American in states that did not create their own insurance marketplaces. Declaring those subsidies unconstitutional would undermine a key part of the law and cost millions of people health insurance.

And finally, the president has little time. There have been few achievements in the final quarter of a presidency, but many problems: For Bush, it was a financial crisis. For Clinton, it was impeachment and the dotcom bubble bursting. For Reagan, it was Iran-Contra. Richard Nixon resigned and Lyndon Johnson was consumed by the Vietnam War. That's why some close observers say there is a "second term curse."