- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2014

As President Obama girds for his final two years in office as a lame duck, Americans increasingly disapprove of his job performance and are turning to Republicans in Congress for leadership on the economy and national security.

Mr. Obama will hold a year-end press conference Friday at the White House, where he will be confronted with sobering public sentiment. Two major surveys in recent days — conducted before Wednesday’s announcement about the U.S. resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba — show the president’s job approval ratings at or near a low point of around 40 percent. His unpopularity is contributing to a rise in the Republican brand and the solid GOP majorities in the Senate and House next year.

“He had a disastrous year,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “Lost the Senate. Lost more seats in the House. Democrats were wiped out at the state level. That’s his political legacy. And on the international stage, the world is a less stable place over this last year, and the president’s performance is tied directly to that.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama had “a rather consequential year.”

“If you review the substantial accomplishments that we’ve racked up here, particularly in the last few weeks from this historic climate deal with China, to finally taking action to address some of the broken aspects of our immigration system, to obviously the substantial historic announcement on Cuba, that the president is pleased with the kind of progress that we have made,” Mr. Earnest said Thursday.

But more than 70 percent of voters in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll said the next president should take a different approach from Mr. Obama, and more than half said the president either hasn’t received the message from voters in the midterm elections or has ignored it.

Mr. Obama began the year by vowing to take more executive actions on everything from the minimum wage to immigration policy, saying he was no longer willing to wait for congressional Republicans.

But his go-it-alone approach didn’t win public support, and his diminished agenda was overtaken often by emergencies overseas, from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine to the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.

“They had a plan and stuck to it, but at times definitely they were overshadowed by events overseas,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist aligned closely with the White House. “Other times they suffered from relations of their own making in their dealings with Congress. I’d probably give him a 6 [out of 10], being charitable as a loyal Democrat.”

Perhaps the low point of Mr. Obama’s year came in August when he showed up in the White House briefing room in a tan suit and said “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with rampaging Islamic State terrorists in Syria.

But Mr. Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said the president has enjoyed a few more successes this month, including a string of appointees confirmed by the Senate and the potential “landmark reset in relations” with Cuba.

“That not-so-good, kind-of-awful year ended up in a pretty good place after all,” Mr. Manley said.

Republicans, however, are in a better place, thanks in large part to Mr. Obama.

Favorability of the Republican Party has jumped 14 points since the GOP’s successful performance in the midterm elections, and more voters now trust Republicans in Congress over Mr. Obama to handle the nation’s major issues, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll.

Forty-seven percent of Americans in the survey have a favorable impression of the Republican Party, and 47 percent have a negative view — up from a 33 percent/56 percent favorable/unfavorable split in October and the party’s best standing in eight years.

Forty-four percent have a favorable impression of the Democratic Party compared with 50 percent who have an unfavorable view, which is an uptick from a 39/51 favorable/unfavorable split in October but down from a 49/46 split in August.

Forty-one percent approve of how Mr. Obama is doing his job, compared with 54 percent who disapprove. On the major issues of the day, 43 percent trust Republicans in Congress and 39 percent trust Mr. Obama. That’s a reversal from June, when 43 percent trusted Mr. Obama more and 38 percent trusted the GOP in Congress.

The president held 64 fundraisers for Democrats this year, but Mr. Feehery said the president’s unpopularity became increasingly evident as candidates shunned him in their home states, especially in the South.

“He became toxic on the campaign trail,” Mr. Feehery said. “The Republican sweep can be tied directly to his unpopularity.”

As the president was avoided by members of his own party this year, his relations with Democrats on Capitol Hill soured to the point that the White House pledged after the election to reach out more often to Democratic lawmakers.

“The idea that even at this point in time the White House needed to pledge to increase cooperation with Democrats on the Hill is pretty breathtaking,” Mr. Manley said. “This is something that should have been dealt with a long time ago, but they’re still trying to figure it all out.”

On immigration, Mr. Obama started the year dealing with a surge of tens of thousands of illegal child immigrants coming across the Mexican border from Central America. He ended the year issuing an executive action that grants deportation amnesty for nearly 5 million illegal immigrants, a move that some Republicans concede has given Mr. Obama and his party the upper hand politically for now.

“From a strategic perspective, he’s going to tie Republicans in knots over immigration,” Mr. Feehery said. “You’ve got to say he won on that. It’s driving conservatives crazy, but it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to gain the upper hand on it until after he’s out of office.”

The president issued another little-noticed executive action this week, declaring Bristol Bay and other wide swaths of Alaska coastline off limits to oil and gas drilling. Along with orders to create more national monuments, observers expect the president to take further action unilaterally to burnish his legacy on the environment.

Facing strong Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Mr. Manley said, the president is likely to focus increasingly on executive actions.

“I’m sure the White House will try to find ways to reach compromises with Republicans, but that die has been cast,” he said. “It’s mostly executive orders from here on out. The only question is how many bills he is going to get to veto versus how many bills are going to die in the Senate.”

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