It is September and Barack Obama is in trouble. His poll numbers are down, and there is unrest within his party and among his supporters. Some Democrats have begun to doubt whether his inner circle is up to the task. They are calling for changes — in Obama and his team.
To President Obama and his advisers, this may be today’s story, but it was also the story in September 2007, September 2008 and to some extent September 2009 and September 2010. Obama weathered the first two storms but struggled through the second pair. Which history will be repeated? Can he count on the good luck that helped him earlier? Can he summon within himself the changes that may be needed this time?
Nervous Democrats aren’t sure at this point. White House officials say they are well aware of how tough their problems are but believe things will brighten politically over the coming months. Looking ahead to next year’s election, senior adviser David Plouffe said Saturday: “We understand the very perilous situation we’re in, but we think we have a pathway forward. But we don’t have much margin for error.”
Plouffe says the tough economy and the ugly debt-ceiling debate have taken a toll on the president’s standing, but he dismisses any suggestion that there has been a break between the president and the electorate that will block his attempt to bounce back.
Obama is not, Plouffe argued, in anything like President George W. Bush’s situation in late 2005, after his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina — on top of Iraq-war weariness and other problems — inflicted permanent damage on his presidency.
“They have not at all tuned him out,” Plouffe said of the president and the public. “I completely reject that, the comparison to Bush.”
Four years ago this month, Obama was struggling. His poll numbers against Hillary Rodham Clinton were stagnant. In his estimation, his campaign was operating unevenly, and he was not the candidate he wanted to be. Donors were in revolt. At a meeting with his finance committee that fall, he offered them reassurance. “I will hold your hand,” he said. “. . . We can win this thing if you don’t waver.”
Two months later, after some tactical changes in the campaign and considerable sharpening of his message, Obama finally found his voice at the Jefferson Jackson dinner in Iowa. His campaign started to gain traction, and he became the candidate that many of his followers hoped he would be.
Three years ago, in mid-September, the Obama campaign went into another slump. Republican nominee John McCain and his vice presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, came out of their convention with unexpected momentum. Some polls showed McCain ahead of Obama. Democrats were complaining about the Obama team. Plouffe dismissed those complaints to the New York Times as “bed-wetting.”
Not entirely. Obama gathered his advisers together on the night of Sept. 14, 2008, and told them the campaign had become too reactive. He gave orders to shape up.
In that case, it wasn’t necessary. The next day, Lehman Brothers went belly up, changing the campaign overnight and sealing McCain’s fate. Obama was the beneficiary of external events that worked politically in his favor. The September slump was quickly forgotten.
The slumps of September 2009 and 2010 were less easily navigated. Obama used a joint-session speech to Congress in 2009 to try to jump-start congressional action on health care. Over that summer, his approval rating had dropped 11 points to 54 percent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The speech provided a temporary lift, at least psychologically, for the White House. But damage that summer proved lasting — though when he signed the health-care bill, his approval rating was about the same as it had been in September. And Democrats had surrendered Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown.
By this time a year ago, Obama’s approval ratings had dropped further, to 46 percent, and Democrats were heading toward an electoral storm that would cost them the House and seats in the Senate. Nothing the White House did at that time fended off the Republican surge. To the extent that Republicans fell short of their expectations, it was more because of self-inflicted wounds than presidential muscle.
White House officials consoled themselves by noting that the president was not actually on the ballot. They correctly pointed to the economy as the main cause of the voters’ anger. Many Democrats did not accept that explanation completely, signaling disconnect between the president and some in his party that has intensified since then.
Which brings us to September 2011. The news this week highlights the president’s problems: Weak numbers (approval down further). Criticism of the president and his staff for perceived tactical and strategic mistakes. Reports of past infighting.
Democrats are voicing complaints publicly and privately. James Carville wants the president to fire somebody. A new book by Ronald Suskind paints a portrait of a White House divided over economic policy. White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley was the target of two stories late in the week questioning his stewardship.
People are second-guessing the president’s team. Two Democrats in New Hampshire volunteered their concern to me at a political dinner in Manchester on Friday night, saying the Obama campaign has been slow to develop a presence in this important primary and general-election state.
Republican strategists running campaigns for Mitt Romney and Rick Perry see a president fundamentally weakened and saddled with an economy that isn’t going to rebound quickly. White House officials say voters know little about either of the two leading Republicans. Eventually, they argue, voters will and may not like all they see.
At some point, voters will begin to weigh the election as a choice between Obama and the Republican nominee.
“As unhappy as people are about the economy,” Plouffe said, “they certainly don’t want to go back to the policies that got us into this stuff. . . . We are confident people want our vision more.”
Obama advisers regard criticism of the president’s staff as a conversation ignored by most Americans, who are focused on their lives, their jobs and their unease about the country — which should be only partially reassuring, given the depth of concerns about the economy.
Obama advisers believe the president is stronger in the battleground states than his national numbers suggest. They also argue that, whatever the president’s condition, congressional Republicans came out of the debt-ceiling debate in even worse shape and face losses in the House next year, particularly if they reject most of the president’s new jobs plan.
Still, the weight of evidence underscores the president’s vulnerabilities 14 months out from the election. Plouffe told Senate Democrats late last week that the White House would not suffer from overconfidence.
“What I don’t want to suggest is that we’re sitting around and thinking everything is great,” he said. “We’ve got a pathway that is fairly straight and narrow.”
In his campaigns for the Democratic nomination and the general election, Obama fought effectively when his back was to the wall. During his presidency, he has left doubts among his loyalists about whether he has the stomach for the current battle. What is known is that another September has come with questions facing him and his team. How will they respond this time?