WASHINGTON — His signature initiative is on the ropes — Down in the count! Fourth and long! — but President Obama remains strangely sportsmanlike. “We fumbled the rollout on this health care law,” he admitted at Thursday afternoon’s news conference. “I am very frustrated, but I’m also somebody who, if I fumbled the ball, you know, I’m going to wait until I get the next play and then I’m going to try to run as hard as I can and do right by the team.”
Four times he mentioned fumbling — both the HealthCare.gov website and his promise that people could keep their health plans if they liked them. “These are two fumbles on something ... but the game’s not over,” he said.
In a narrow sense, that’s probably true: There may well be enough time to salvage Obamacare. But on the broader question of whether Obama can rebuild an effective presidency after this debacle, it’s starting to look as if it may be Game Over. The record for recent second-term presidents is not good: Ronald Reagan had Iran-contra, Bill Clinton had impeachment, and George W. Bush had Katrina and Iraq. Once a president suffers a blow such as Obama is now suffering with his health care law — in which the public not only disapproves of a president’s actions but starts to take a negative view of him personally — it is difficult to recover.
Last week’s Quinnipiac University poll found Obama’s job-approval rating at its lowest ever, 39 percent. More ominous: Only 44 percent say Obama is honest and trustworthy, while 52 percent say he is not; that’s the first time more thought him untrustworthy than trustworthy. Polls show Obama’s personal favorability rating has dropped in tandem. We have seen this before. After the flubbed response to Katrina in 2005, Bush’s honest-and-trustworthy rating fell below 50 percent for the first time, and it never returned.
Clinton began his second term with 42 percent calling him honest and trustworthy; he soon slipped into the 20s in Washington Post polling and stayed there. The loss of trust will make even harder the already uphill effort to persuade Congress to enact other items on his agenda, such as immigration reform and a comprehensive budget deal. House Speaker John Boehner last week dashed hopes of immigration legislation getting through Congress anytime soon, saying the House wouldn’t even negotiate with the Senate over an immigration bill that chamber passed.
Also last week, House and Senate conferees meeting to discuss the budget they have been assigned to produce acknowledged they had given up hope for a far-reaching agreement.
Obama, in his Thursday news conference, spoke of regaining his clout as part of the game. His game plan: “My intention in terms of winning back the confidence of the American people is just to work as hard as I can, identify the problems that we’ve got, make sure that we’re fixing them.”
“There are going to be ups and downs during the course of my presidency,” Obama said. “I think I said early on when I was running, I am not a perfect man and I will not be a perfect president.” He didn’t seem to consider that this may not be part of the usual ups and downs. And though he deserves credit for his apologies — seven times during his news conference, he said the problems with Obamacare are “on us” or “on me” — it’s not likely that the public’s loss of trust will be repaired no matter how often or how genuinely he says “my bad.”
Even as he accepted responsibility for the debacle, he couldn’t resist transferring some blame to the assembled press (“the things that go right, you guys aren’t going to write about” and to Republicans (“repeal, repeal, let’s get rid of this thing”).
But Obama seemed genuinely puzzled by the notion that his leadership may have been the cause. He dismissed a question about whether his administration may be too insular (“I meet with an awful lot of folks”).
And, he said, “when I do some Monday-morning quarterbacking on myself,” he concludes that maybe he should have been “breaking the mold” with the rollout earlier because “the federal government has not been good at this stuff in the past.”
Wait a minute: Monday-morning quarterbacking? Maybe the president does understand that the game is over.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post whose work appears Mondays and Fridays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.