President Obama has had a rough year. Gun control measures failed in Congress despite strong public support. There was a government shutdown in October, which would be bad enough news, but once that ended, the focus turned to the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Obama ultimately earned Politifact’s Lie of the Year “award” for his debunked claim that Americans could keep their insurance plans if they liked them.
As a result, his approval ratings hit an all-time low of 38 percent earlier this month. Millennials, who helped him get elected and are crucial to the success of the healthcare law, were evenly balanced on the approval question. And for the first time, a majority of Americans said they did not believe Obama was trustworthy.
True, the GOP is also unpopular and Obama’s numbers have improved somewhat, but that might not be enough for Democrats running close races. If he wants the next Congress to be bluer, President Obama must regain his standing with the American people.
Luckily for him, there are a few ways he could do that.
Focus on Income Inequality
Income inequality has only gotten worse over the last few years. Now, most Americans feel that the U.S. no longer offers everyone an equal chance to succeed, and they want policymakers to take action to address this. Those concerned about income inequality recently gained a prominent ally in Pope Francis, who derided trickle-down economics as “never [being] confirmed by the facts.”
That may explain why Democrats, including President Obama, seem to have embraced inequality as their issue of choice. And why not? Both raising the minimum wage and raising taxes on the wealthy have strong public support, to say nothing of the economic case behind something like a minimum wage hike.
One upside in the recent polls is that most Americans still believe the President cares about average people. Continuing to embrace this as his cause for the remainder of his term would help hammer that point home.
Fix the NSA
If President Obama wants to regain Americans’ trust, what better place to start than convincing them he will protect their right to privacy?
Americans clearly want to see stricter oversight over the NSA. In recent weeks, we’ve learned the scope of the NSA’s work goes far beyond tracking calls on a “planetary scale” and has expanded to include tracking internet cookies and secretly breaking into Google and Yahoo’s data centers, angering tech companies and potentially getting Congress into the act.
Now a federal judge has ruled, in what has been described as “blistering language”, that the NSA’s efforts are likely unconstitutional.
Worse still, the Obama administration has tried to block the flow of information to journalists, including quotes on the NSA. That does not make Americans feel like the administration is concerned, first and foremost, with their constitutional rights.
To be fair, Obama has already signaled a willingness to institute some reforms. A review group he created recently completed a report with more than 40 recommendations; that report was made public Wednesday. That’s a good first step, but if his response is seen as being half-hearted or ignoring the most important concerns Americans have, it won’t amount to much.
Any discussion of President Obama’s poll numbers must include Obamacare. While the law’s rollout was not quite as bad as some commentators have claimed, and while it arguably represents the perils of dealing with the American electorate, it’s still seen as the preeminent reason for his declining ratings.
This is where the problem began, and for all the good President Obama could do by tackling income inequality and reforming the NSA, Obamacare is where he will win or lose the public.
Going forward, it’s important for President Obama to drill down on two points: first, that the pre-Obamacare healthcare system was atrocious, leaving millions uninsured and delivering care that was worse than many other countries’ at double the cost — and the only party proposing a return to that system is the GOP.
That will help, but it takes more than the absence of a negative to win people over. That’s why the second point President Obama must make, with specifics, is that the law is already helping people — from recent college graduates saddled with student debt who can stay on their parents’ insurance another year, to the millions who could pay less than $100 a month for a plan, to people like Sue Spanke, who had her previous insurance canceled but ended up with a better plan for much less.
Debating with anecdotes is not ideal, and the White House is trying to look at the bigger picture, but this early in the process, personal stories are necessary to overcome public skepticism toward Obamacare. (The GOP certainly isn’t hesitating to use them.)
Most importantly, President Obama must own his mistakes. The rollout was handled badly, and the claim that Americans could keep their insurance if they liked it was wrong. He has apologized for both in the past and he should continue to do so.
Why would he continue to bring up those missteps? Because when your honesty is in question, admitting you were wrong is the best way to show people you want their trust back, and you’re willing to do a lot to earn it.
President Kennedy famously said, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” President Obama isn’t defeated yet — he just needs to accept his mistakes before he can claim some triumphs.