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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Throughout his career as a national politician, President Barack Obama often has benefited from comparisons with others. Nearing the end of the first year of his second term, he is running mostly against himself — and falling short.
The disastrous rollout of his health care law has put him on the spot in ways he has rarely been before. The cool and cerebral chief executive, whose reliance on smart people and rational analysis has been at the foundation of his often-insulated governing style, has been forced to admit that he and his team vastly underestimated the challenge of implementing the Affordable Care Act.
His appearance in the White House Briefing Room on Thursday was primarily to announce an administrative fix to quell the furor surrounding the cancellation of health insurance policies for millions of Americans in the individual market. But it also became an exercise in acknowledging error, in highlighting what he didn’t know or misjudged, and in recognizing that regaining public confidence will take much time under the best of circumstances.
Obama admitted the obvious: that his administration “fumbled” the rollout and that those missteps have changed the public’s view of him. “I think it’s legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health care law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general,” he said of Americans. “And, you know, that’s on me.”
He said his team didn’t immediately recognize the severity of the problems on the HealthCare.gov website and that he did not anticipate what might happen to policies purchased on the individual market when he said people could keep their coverage if wished. He said his administration, recognizing that the information technology is not the government’s strong suit, should have thought harder two years ago about the problems it might face.
“There have been times when I thought we ... got, you know, slapped around a little bit unjustly,” he said of past criticism of his administration. “This one’s deserved. ... It’s on us.”
The most recent national polls tell the story of Obama’s decline in stark terms. His overall approval ratings have hit record lows and his ratings on a variety of major issues are at or near their lowest points. The health care mess is a major contributor, but the question he must grapple with is the degree to which there are deeper doubts about his leadership.
Attributes that once helped sustain him through crises have eroded. A majority in a new Quinnipiac University poll say he is not honest and trustworthy, and more people say he is not a strong leader than say he is. In a Gallup survey, only 50 percent said he is honest. Throughout most of his presidency, that number in Gallup’s tracking hovered around 60 percent.
Obama’s approval ratings may be at record lows, but not by much. In August and September 2011, the fallout from the messy debt-ceiling negotiations that collapsed left him at a low point politically and emotionally, with poll numbers similar to today’s.
Obama’s reaction was to pivot after Labor Day that year to his re-election campaign, force the public to choose between him and Republican Mitt Romney, frame the election in terms most favorable to himself and make as much of the debate as possible about his opponent’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. By the end of 2012, after his re-election, his approval ratings bounced back above 50 percent.
Those numbers began moving down early in his second term and have dropped sharply since September. But Obama has no campaign left to run, at least not against another politician. The campaign ahead is one to restore credibility to his presidency. Without it, his second-term agenda remains at risk. The campaign he must wage now requires a different focus. It is about competency and delivering on promises, whether on health care or the economy. It requires a more positive and consistent approach, even in the face of opposition from Republicans determined to prove that Obamacare will never work.
Obama’s advisers are keenly aware of the situation. So, too, is the president. His campaign team was steeped in polling, focus groups and research. There is no doubt that those around him are continually monitoring Obama’s vital signs to gauge just how big the problem is.
Administration officials maintain the belief that, eventually, the health care law will work well and mostly as promised, even if it is never free from controversy and opposition. That hope, however, should be tempered by something Obama said on Thursday about the miscalculations that he and others made about the complex transformation they were undertaking.
What he said was this: “Another mistake that we made, I think, was underestimating the difficulties of people purchasing insurance online and shopping for a lot of options with a lot of costs and lot of different benefits and plans and somehow expecting that that would be very smooth.”
No one knows how much the health care problems or criticism of Republicans over the federal government shutdown will influence the 2014 midterm elections, but Democrats are showing that they will not blindly follow the president’s lead if trouble with the health care law continues. The president has left congressional Democrats in a difficult position, just as he did when he asked them to pass the legislation along strictly partisan lines. Many Democrats paid for that vote with the loss of their seats in 2010.
Getting health care right is the administration’s priority, as Obama made clear on Thursday. But the issue for him is whether the damage he has sustained over the past two months is long lasting, regardless of whether the Affordable Care Act is working much more smoothly a year from now.
Does he have a rebound strategy in mind? Perhaps it is the hope that the next round of budget and debt-ceiling negotiations will cause more heartburn for the GOP, although the shutdown hurt the president as well. Perhaps he will have to wait until his next State of the Union address, an event he has used in the past to rebalance his presidency, to try to regain the initiative.
He may never run for office again, but he still has another campaign he must try to win.