Take a look at how Obama’s job-approval numbers have shifted over the course of the year. After starting at the expected high levels at Inauguration, it started steadily sinking, first from January to March (euphoria wearing off), after which it leveled off a bit, and then steadily from about June to about August. Since then, it has stayed level, just north of 50 percent. Looking at his favorability rating, it’s a similar high start, steady decline, then leveling off since summer.
Meanwhile, when respondents are asked about how President Obama is handling the economy, his approval rating has headed much more steadily south; he’s now averaging underwater, at 44.3 percent approval and 49.2 percent disapproval. The slide is also steady on health care, where he’s now at 44.2 percent approval and 46.2 percent disapproval.
I was talking about this split with one of my regulars, and he argued that a certain chunk of the public isn’t impressed with Obama – they can see the rising unemployment rate, and the 2,000-page health-care bill baffles them – but they don’t want to write him off just yet. Perhaps they feel it’s a bit early to hold him accountable for the state of the nation; perhaps they think rapid improvement is just around the corner; or perhaps they fear being called racist or hateful or a tea-party-related vulgar term for criticizing the president.
My regular speculated that Obama’s current public-approval rating is balancing on a bubble of these hopeful-but-losing-faith supporters, and that the first time Obama really, irrefutably screws something up, his approval will plunge much more dramatically. (Sooner or later, every president irrefutably screws something up.)
The White House’s response to the Fort Hood shooting isn’t quite that screw-up. There were many great passages in Obama’s remarks at the memorial service. But two days later, two passages jump out – Obama’s declarations that these Americans being killed on American soil was “incomprehensible” and that “it may be hard to comprehend the twisted logic that led to this tragedy.”
With each passing day, the details about the Fort Hood shooter get clearer – repeated communication between Hasan and an extremist figure in Yemen, web postings that appeared to justify suicide bombings, strange behavior at Walter Reed, and now perhaps financial transfers to someone in Pakistan. Increasingly it seems Nidal Malik Hasan wasn’t afraid to fight a war; he just wanted to fight for the other side.
Pres. George W. Bush had his troubles throughout his second term, but his approval rating really dropped after Hurricane Katrina and his infamous “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” utterance. Before that date, a lot of Americans who were troubled by Iraq had been willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt because the government seemed to be handling its duties well – no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, etc. Once that perception of basic competence eroded, Bush’s poll numbers plummeted and never recovered.
We were endlessly told about Obama’s calm, cerebral temperament during the presidential campaign. He cited the way his campaign operated as a sign he was ready to manage the giant, sprawling United States government. During the transition, the media wrote about the “Cult of Competency” surrounding the Obama team.
A certain number of not-terribly-ideological voters out there evaluate their leaders by the simple question, “Is the government doing the job it’s supposed to be doing?” Reports that our national-security agencies and branches of the government were not communicating key information about potential threats makes us feel like we’re back where we started before 9/11. Finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and at the top, a leader who offers inspiring rhetoric but a certain vagueness about a fundamental question – why did this man pull the trigger? – suggest that the perception of basic competence under this administration may be on shaky ground.
Unemployment is beyond 10 percent, and Obama is offering a summit, the same solution he suggested for a dispute between a professor and a cop. While Americans worry about whether their job is safe and how they’ll pay the rent, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are focused almost entirely on a gargantuan, incomprehensible health-care bill and a similarly complicated cap-and-trade bill. And now, there quite possibly was a jihadist, executing an attack on one of the largest U.S. military bases in the world, at the moment we’re told the president wants more time to review his options on Afghanistan.
The stage appears set for Obama’s “heck of a job” moment.