Despite what some called “Obama’s worst year ever” and what everyone agreed was terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Obamacare rollout, Barack Obama’s job approval rating has bounced back out of the 30s and into the mid-40s-not great, but neither the inexorable slide into oblivion that many predicted. Once again, the reports of Obama’s political death have been greatly exaggerated, begging the question as to why pundits seem so eager to pronounce his last rites.
On ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos, Matthew Dowd was the latest to eulogize the Obama presidency.
“A year ago today he was winning a 50 percent-plus victory, first person since Eisenhower to win two terms over 50 percent, everything seemed so great,” said Dowd. “Ever since the start of the second administration, it’s all gone downhill. His presidency, in my view, and the credibility of his presidency and the relevancy of his presidency is dramatically in question today, and I think he can’t recover from it.”
Dowd, whom I worked for briefly almost two decades ago when he was a Democrat, wasn’t making a partisan attack. Despite him later becoming a Republican who helped elect and re-elect George W. Bush, my disagreement with him here is neither personal nor partisan. I like Matthew but suspect he could be wrong.
Without ever earning a cool nickname like “the Comeback Kid” or a reputation for resiliency, Obama has made a habit of bouncing back. We turned our backs without checking for a pulse after Hillary Clinton won in New Hampshire, when Rev. Jeremy Wright god-damned America, and when Obama said “The private sector is doing fine” amid 9% unemployment. Pundits called him a dead man walking after his last “worst year ever” in 2011 when he tried to negotiate with congressional Republicans. We asked ourselves whether he could recover from his first debate with Mitt Romney, forgetting that Obama has rebounded more times that Dennis Rodman.
Yet here he stands, the president who plays his best when he has backed himself into a corner but who never gets the reputation as a clutch performer. We should respect someone who is always proving the naysayers wrong and repeatedly beats the odds. But here’s the thing with Obama-and the reason why I suspect the insiders always seem eager to attend his political funeral: Winning has never felt worse.
Obama has the bad luck to be a serious man in trivial times (Birthers, and truthers, and deniers! Oh, my!), to seek common ground with a party devoted to trench warfare, and to preside over an era of disruption that never feels like peacetime or wartime. He passed landmark laws to reform Wall Street, to make student loans cheaper, to create a new G.I. Bill, and to save the U.S. auto industry. He ended wars, torture, and Osama bin Laden’s life. He recapitalized banks, repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and nearly doubled fuel efficiency standards. But instead of ticker-tape parades we feel cheated of both justice and satisfaction.
When Obama won in 2008 by putting red states such as Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia into his column, he dangled the possibility of a post-racial, post-partisan peace. Instead, he has had to defend the White House against a political war of attrition. We thought we were getting a Democratic Ronald Reagan and a long spell of feel-good transformation. Instead, we got the black Lyndon Johnson, leaving behind an impressive list of achievements as well as a country exhausted from tension, obstruction, and fighting.
We only feel good when he explains the world to us, but by now we’ve become conditioned to the disappointment that inevitably follows one of his speeches. He hasn’t lost his gifts. It’s just that we know they won’t change our lives.
Instead, those who make a living watch this White House swing wildly from Obama’s political victories (“everything seemed so great”) to congressional obstruction. An improving economy is likely to continue Obama’s recovery, but bad things will happen, both real (Benghazi) and manufactured (BENGHAZI!!). And the grand marshals of the Beltway parade will ask each other whether Obama could possibly recover, ignoring the fact that he always has.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JasStanford.