President Obama is furiously fending off those “winter of discontent” stories, and it’s not even winter yet.
The news about the health care law that is supposed to be his greatest achievement is almost uniformly downbeat. The public is unhappy with national politicians of all kinds. And then there are the polls, a currency that the political world -- despite ritualistic denials -- values more than any other.
On Tuesday, the Quinnipiac poll showed Obama with the lowest approval rating of his presidency. Only 39 percent approved his performance; 54 percent disapproved. The Quinnipiac numbers echoed those of a recent Pew survey that pegged the president’s job approval at 41 percent, with 53 percent disapproving.
In situations of this sort, there is always a search for an instant repair. “Fix the website” is the most obvious, and it’s certainly necessary. But a tech problem has now been compounded by the reality of health care reform itself. The small but highly visible individual insurance market was volatile before there ever was Obamacare. But it’s hardly surprising that some of those who are in it are angry when plans are canceled and premiums rise.
The very purpose of insurance reform is to create a broad market in which the less healthy will be able to get coverage at affordable prices. This made a certain amount of cost shifting inevitable, a truth captured succinctly by The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, one of the nation’s premier health policy writers: “You can’t fix health insurance without changing health insurance.”
But the president’s promise that Americans would be able to keep their policies downplayed this risk, and it now haunts him. A Republican opposition that never wanted Obamacare to work -- “an organized constituency for failure,” in former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers’ phrase -- jumped on Obama’s words even as GOP politicians disrupted the law at the state level.
What this means is that there will be no quick fix. Obama faces a longer slog, and he has to ask where he can begin his political recovery.
A detailed comparison of two Pew surveys -- one conducted in December 2012 that found Obama with a 55 percent-39 percent approval rating and the more recent survey with the 12-point approval deficit -- shows that while he has lost support across the board, he has taken a big hit among two classic swing groups, white Catholics and political independents.
Conservative independents who didn’t much like him before like him even less now. But most striking are the president’s severe losses with two groups of independents: those who call themselves liberal and those who lean toward the Democrats. In principle, both should be open to reconciliation with the president. Many in their ranks may be turned off not only by the health care plan’s failures but also by the controversy over NSA surveillance and possibly the battle earlier this year over intervention in Syria.
His drop with Hispanics was close to the national average, but significant: Obama’s approval fell from 75 percent after the election to 60 percent now. Frustration over the slow economy and the stalling of immigration reform are likely playing a role.
And Obama’s losses were also steep among white blue-collar women -- those without college degrees. As with Hispanics, they have reason to be dissatisfied with the economy and a sense that Washington has defaulted in dealing with basic working-class and middle-class economic challenges.
The president’s one advantage is that congressional Republicans seem to be in even worse shape than he is. Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the Pew survey by 32 percent to 24 percent. And a Gallup poll released Tuesday showed Congress with an approval rating of 9 percent, the lowest in the 39 years Gallup has asked the question.
For Obama, there is no escaping health care. He needs to engage in an aggressive new defense that acknowledges problems in the individual market. He should be open to transitional patches, but only if they do not undercut the overall reform effort. And he must take on Republicans over how high the cost of dismantling Obamacare would be to the large swath of Americans who will benefit from it -- or already do.
But he also has to grapple with the wider causes of discontent, from the surveillance program to gridlock on immigration reform to the strained economic circumstances of many who have supported him in the past. He can survive his enemies. He needs to win back the citizens who were once his friends.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).