Why was 2013 so Bad for Obama and What Will 2014 Mean to Him?
A year ago, Barak Obama was on the top of the world. He had been reelected as president, his party had made some modest gains in the Congress, he was looking at the remaking of America, and some Democrats in Congress were writing a Constitutional Amendment that would have allowed him to run for a third term.
As 2013 ends, however, Obama is unquestionably at the perigee of his administration. His policies, especially Obamacare, are in shambles and his popularity rating is lower than George Bush’s rating at the same time in his presidency. His State of the Union agenda of action on education policy, immigration, gun control, climate change, job creation, infrastructure, tax reform, and raising the minimum wage remain unfulfilled.
Historically, second terms are difficult for American presidents. The voters are growing tired of the same policies and the lame duck status makes members of the president’s party eager to find a new leadership to win the next election. However, for Obama, much of the damage was self inflicted.
One problem was overestimating the extent of his mandate. Although Obama had won a second term, his margin of victory was smaller than in his first election – a rarity since most presidents, who are reelected, do so by bigger margins. This meant the electorate was less excited about his presidency than in the first four years and would be less tolerant of his policies.
The weakness of his mandate became obvious even before his second inauguration. With the Sandy Hook shootings in December 2012, Obama made gun control his big issue leading into the new term. What he discovered was that his reelection hadn’t changed the politics of American gun ownership. Democratic politicians quickly deserted him and just weeks after Obama’s victory at the polls, he was giving Republicans a political victory and Democrats a warning that close adherence to Obama’s policies might spell political defeat in 2014.
While a politician like Clinton would have modified his positions and moved towards the political center, Obama continued to spend his political capital on legislative efforts that didn’t’ have broad political backing. He advocated immigration reform, which is popular with some parts of Obama’s base, but not popular with the average American voter.
Obama also misjudged the battle over sequestering some government money. His administration stopped White House tours and curtailed some high visibility government operations in hope that the bad publicity would force the Republicans to budge. However, the story didn’t go the way he expected as the media focused on his golf outings and the rock music concerts being held at the White House for the First Family.
Obama also damaged himself in the foreign policy realm – usually a positive arena for presidents – with his flip-flop on Syria and chemical weapons usage. He first spoke of a “red line,” then backed down after rushing to accuse Assad of using CW, his critics were quick to accuse him of vacillating between military strikes and doing nothing.
Obama was also hurt by several scandals – a common curse in second terms. News that the Obama IRS was auditing Obama’s political enemies had an impact on voters. Then, the Snowden NSA revelations caused damage to Obama, both domestically and internationally.
The final blow has been the poor roll-out of Obamacare, the one legislative achievement of Obama. The result has been dramatic. A survey from Quinnipiac University shows Obama’s approval rating at a negative 38 to 57 percent – a level of disapproval that in 2005 presaged the disastrous election results for the Republicans in the House and Senate in the 2006 elections.
Everyone agrees that 2013 was a bad year for Obama. The question is if 2014 will be a better one? Probably not. American presidential history shows that presidential disapproval only gets worse as the second term goes along.
Looking Towards 2014
The biggest problem for Obama in 2014 is that he has proven himself to be politically tone deaf. Unlike Clinton, who could redirect his politics, Obama is more ideologically inflexible and more likely to stick to his base beliefs. This inflexibility will hurt his relations with Democratic politicians who will be forced to run for reelection in 2014 on Obama’s policies and give them reason to not support him or his legislative agenda.
Obama’s tendency to use executive authority rather than congressionally passed legislation will make it easier to do things, but will only frustrate voters who disagree with his policies. It also gives Republicans issues to run on in 2014.
Politically, Obama is in bad shape with voters according to the polls. According to the most recent Quinnipaic poll, Obama gets negative scores of 6 to 92 percent among Republicans, 30 to 62 percent among independent voters, 31 to 64 percent among men, 44 to 49 percent among women and 29 to 65 among white voters.
Even Obama’s support amongst his base is eroding. Obama even gets a negative 41 to 49 percent among voters 18 to 29 years old and a lackluster 50 to 43 percent approval among Hispanic voters. The only thing holding up his figures is the strong 85 to 9 percent approval rating among black voters.
This will have an impact on the mid term election in November. Democratic chances of regaining the majority in the House are nil and retained Democratic control of the Senate is in doubt. American voters say 41 to 38 percent that they would vote for a Republican over a Democrat for Congress, the first time this year the Democrats come up on the short end of this generic ballot. Independent voters back Republican candidates 41 to 28 percent. Voters also said by a 47 to 42 percent margin that they would like to see Republicans gain control of the U.S. Senate and the House. Independent voters go Republican 50 to 35 percent for each.
A CNN/ORC poll just released on Thursday confirmed this trend. It showed that 55% of registered voters say that they are more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who opposes the President than one who supports him and four in 10 say they are likely to vote for a candidate who supports Obama. There is also an enthusiasm gap that favors the turnout of voters in November. Thirty-six percent of Republicans say they’re extremely or very enthusiastic about voting. That number drops to 22% among Democrats.
These are harbingers of bad news for Democrats for November.
Should the Republicans control both the Senate and House, Obama’s last two years could be very difficult. Currently, Obama is protected by a Democratic Senate that can negate Republican control of the House. However, without the Senate, Obama would be forced to veto legislation that he opposes, but that might be popular with American voters. He might also find judicial nominations and confirmation of officials in his administration difficult.
This basically leaves Obama with two choices. Either he can moderate his policies or help Democratic politicians retain their seats in 2014 – which would make his last two years easier. Or, he can continue along the current track, which will mean continued poor polling for himself and other Democrats – which will lead to electoral disaster in November.
Obama’s current policy is to ignore the election and the polls. His hope is to use the one area where the US president is supreme to turn events around – foreign policy. And, at the top of the foreign policy agenda is brokering some deal that stops Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.
However, an Iranian nuclear deal is only going to help his presidency if it has the consent of the American voter. In the case of Iranian negotiations, he is fighting American public opinion. Americans gave Obama a negative 40 to 48 percent approval for his handling of the situation with Iran in a recent poll. They are split on the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons, with 44 percent supporting the agreement and 46 percent opposed.
One result of the bad poll numbers on Obama’s Iran deal is that several Democratic politicians up for reelection in 2014 are publically opposing the deal and fighting for more sanctions in Iran. Given the threats by Iran to pull out of the deal if the Congress imposes more sanctions, the chances of the current deal being consummated or a longer term deal being made are poor.
Engineering a Middle Eastern peace agreement is always a goal for American presidents, even though they do little for them during elections (Carter being the prime example). That’s one reason why Secretary of State Kerry is focused on an Israeli/Palestinian deal at the moment.
However, the odds of such an agreement in 2014 are slim. As was noted in the poll, some American voter’s blocks are pro-Israel and the Israeli government knows it. If Obama tries to force them into an agreement with the Palestinian Authority that it doesn’t like, Israel is likely to go over Obama’s head to the American voter this year. From the other side a brewing third Palestinian Intifada is more likely to erupt if the Palestinian Authority buckles under the American pressure and accept a sellout agreement.
Since any agreement will require some American intervention and assistance, that will require congressional approval. If Israel generally opposes the deal, Democratic politicians will be forced to move away from Obama and support Israel in order to be reelected. That gives Israel the upper hand in negotiations in 2014 and will make them intractable at the negotiating table.
Domestically, Obama is in even worse shape because Congress has a larger role in the domestic field. And, Obama has a very weak legislative record.
Contrary to popular belief, gridlock isn’t the reason Obama bypasses Congress. Frequently, Obama is advocating policies like immigration reform, which are unpopular with the American voter, and therefore, their elected representatives. One excellent example is the Iranian nuclear deal that is opposed by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress as well by the “brainwashed” American people. The Administration is fighting passage of bipartisan Iranian sanctions legislation that might interfere with the president’s own negotiations.
Obama’s tendency to use executive orders is a sign of that weakness. By avoiding the legislative route, he is admitting that his policy is so weak that Congress can defeat it and not face any consequences on Election Day. Executive orders are also vulnerable to being declared unconstitutional by the courts or merely being reversed by the next president.
However, Obama is in a poor position to influence Democratic congressmen in 2014 because he has lost the most important political tools presidents have to influence legislation.
The best way a president has to influence a wavering congressman is to promise to campaign for him in the next election. This works best in districts with a large number of voters who like the incumbent president. It is a disaster with a president who is unpopular with independents. That’s where Obama is with only 30% of independents approving of Obama. This was confirmed by the CNN poll that showed that 55% of voters are more likely to vote for someone who opposes Obama. At this point, Obama’s endorsement is a kiss of death.
The president can also help a wavering congressman by helping him in fundraising. This can even work with unpopular presidents who still retain the support of the major contributors. This won’t work now, however, because Obama’s fundraising is floundering and many fundraising events have had to sell cut rate tickets to fill up the hall.
Finally, a president can tell a congressman that he will give them a job in the administration if they support him and lose the next election. However, with Obama having only two more years in office after the next election and Republicans likely to control the Senate where any high level jobs must be confirmed, the promise of a job is less attractive than in the past.
That makes Obama’s legislative muscle very weak.
2013 may have seemed to be a bad year for Obama, but it will probably pale in comparison to 2014. Obama’s problems in 2013 had no consequence. There were no elections, so he and his party retained control of the White House and Senate. The biggest damage was to his popularity, which will have an impact on the 2014 election unless he can restore it.
However, Obama’s chances to restore his popularity are very limited. First is the historical trend of American voters to tire of their president by the 6th year of the presidency. His poll numbers may improve in the next 11 months, but probably not by enough to turn events around.
The second problem is that in the field of foreign affairs – the one field the president can have total control over – Obama has chosen to spend his political capital on a very controversial deal with the Iranians on their nuclear deal.
The third problem is that Obama is limited in making any major domestic initiative that may turn things around. The American president is constitutionally limited in domestic policy and must work with Congress – something that Obama has shown himself unable to do. 2014 will be spent by both parties in Congress defining differences, not working in a bipartisan manner. His reliance on executive orders will have a long term negative impact because they will tend to be more unpopular with the voter than legislated measures, which will only harden his disapproval figures.
While this happens, expect to see national figures emerge in both the Democratic and Republican Parties. Obama is already perceived as a “lame duck” that can’t help his fellow Democrats get elected. That means Democrats will start looking elsewhere for national leadership. Hillary Clinton is an obvious choice, but other names are already being circulated as the next standard bearer of the Democratic Party.
And, though the Republicans are facing their own intra-party struggles, the potential of taking control of the Senate will encourage them to unite. In the meantime, several Republicans will start looking at the presidential nomination in 2016. By this time next year, people like Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, governors; Walker, Perry, and Christie will be making the obligatory trips to early presidential primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Obama still controls the White House, but as with all second term presidents, he is discovering the limitations. His first year – the more important of the second term – is over, and he has done little. He and his party face an uphill battle to retain political control later this year and many Democrats will decide their chances are better if they ignore Obama.
Historically speaking, 2015 will even be worse. Democrats who aspire to the presidency will be starting their campaigns and differentiating themselves by publically disagreeing with Obama’s policies. As his term winds down, the power of appointment to his administration becomes less valuable and people will see more political advantage by siding with his opposition.
Obama has learned that the American President is the most powerful position in the world. In the next three years, he will also learn what other presidents have learned – that it can be the most ineffective and frustrating job too.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s winter offensive
By Frank Gaffney, Jr.
Center for Security Policy
December 23, 2014
Sixty-nine years ago this month, Nazi Germany mounted its last, horrific offensive in the dead of winter in what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Perhaps taking a page from the playbook of their fellow totalitarians, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have its own audacious winter offensive underway – only this one is being waged inside America, a country the Brothers have declared they seek “to destroy from within.” At the moment, the object of this exercise appears to be to prevail on the U.S. government to do what it did once before: help install a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. The difference, of course, is that the last time was in the heyday of the so-called “Arab Spring,” a moment when the ambitions of Egyptian Islamists and those of their counterparts in Tunisia, Libya, Syria and elsewhere were temporarily obscured by disinformation and wishful thinking.
The Potential for an Assad Statelet in Syria
By Nicholas A. Heras
Policy Focus 132
As the fighting in Syria continues with no signs of decisive victory on the horizon, the Assad regime may decide to abandon parts of the country entirely and form a statelet in the western governorates that remain largely under its control. Such an entity could include as much as 40 percent of Syria’s territory and 70 percent of its population. Establishing this statelet and defending it from rebels and al-Qaeda-aligned jihadists could have dire consequences for the Syrian people and the region as a whole, including intractable conflict, forced migration, ethnic/sectarian cleansing, and permanent, restive refugee populations in neighboring countries. In this Policy Focus, analyst Nicholas Heras assesses the geopolitical, military, and economic implications of such a development, illustrating the various scenarios with detailed maps. As the international community consider negotiations and other options, many Syrians are becoming more fearful of the jihadist threat, more entrenched in their belief that the war is a foreign conspiracy against them, and less likely to support the opposition.
How much control does Ayatollah Khamenei have in Iranian-U.S. relations?
By Ray Takeyh
Council on Foreign Relations
December 23, 2013
Ali Khamenei is the Supreme Leader of Iran and has the final say on all issues pertaining to its foreign policy. The Islamic Republic has a complex constitutional structure whereby the authority of the president and the parliament are subservient to that of the Supreme Leader. All issues of war and peace, treaties and elections have to be approved by Khamenei. As such, the presidents and foreign ministers can engage in negotiations but cannot commit Iran to a final course until the Supreme Leader approves. The question of relations with the United States has bedeviled the Islamic Republic since the revolution. Khamenei belongs to the cadre of ideologues who are suspicious of the United States and perceive its presence and influence as subversive. In Khamenei’s view, the United States is determined to overthrow the Iranian regime and its offers of diplomacy and dialogue have to be considered as insincere.