Nearly halfway through his ballyhooed “year of action,” President Obama isn’t getting much traction.
The president kicked off this election year by vowing to use his presidential “phone and pen” more often, taking executive action to create policies when congressional Republicans are blocking his agenda. Through the first five months of this year, Mr. Obama has taken more than 20 such actions, such as raising the minimum wage for federal contractors and designating a vast national monument in New Mexico.
But there is little evidence that voters, especially in Mr. Obama’s liberal base, care.
“Year of Action?” asked Republican strategist John Feehery. “How about ‘Year of Blah’?”
Cable networks that typically fawn over Mr. Obama’s agenda are going “live” less often to air his campaign-style events, as when the president traveled to New York state two weeks ago to urge Congress to approve more money for road and bridge repairs. Mr. Obama said at the time that he was taking another executive action: to speed up the federal permitting process for such projects.
Also interfering with Mr. Obama’s “year of action” have been periodic blunders by the administration, such as the problems with Obamacare at the start of the year and the scandal this month about delays in veterans’ health care.
An emotional surprise visit to troops in Afghanistan over the weekend was marred in part by an inadvertent White House revelation of the name of the CIA station chief in Kabul as part of the receiving delegation.
Political analysts say the episodes are calling into question the president’s leadership abilities.
“It’s a problem of incompetence,” Republican adviser Ana Navarro said of the Veterans Affairs scandal on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “It’s a problem of being asleep at the wheel. It’s a problem of lack of leadership and governance.”
Polls show the public is not exactly enthused about the president’s activist strategy, even as conservatives slam the president for abusing his powers by acting without congressional approval or oversight.
White House aides won’t say it, but one of the reasons for the president’s “year of action” is to motivate Democrats to vote in the midterm elections, a feat that is proving the political equivalent of enticing schoolchildren to eat nutritious lunches endorsed by first lady Michelle Obama.
The president last week called Democrats’ failure to vote in midterm elections a “congenital disease” that could cost the party control of the Senate for the final two years of Mr. Obama’s presidency.
Despite the White House strategy, polls still show a large enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters for election turnout in November.
A Gallup survey released this month showed Democrats with a 23-point deficit in enthusiasm — 55 percent said they were less enthusiastic about voting than in previous elections, and 32 percent said they were more enthusiastic.
Among Republicans, the deficit was 8 percent.
A Pew Research survey in April concluded that Mr. Obama “inspires far less enthusiasm among Democratic voters than he did four years ago.”
In that poll, 31 percent of Democrats said they view their votes this year as “for” the president. In February 2010, 47 percent of Democrats saw their votes as supporting the president.
Republicans are less enthusiastic than they were in 2010, when a tea party-fueled surge helped the GOP win control of the House. But during the past three midterm elections — 2002, 2006 and 2010 — the party with higher enthusiasm ratings has performed better.
Various polls have Democrats worried about low turnout among young voters, minorities and single women — the core of the party’s support and critical blocs in Mr. Obama’s 2008 and 2012 electoral victories. The drive to raise the minimum wage is viewed as a big motivator for all three groups.
Mr. Obama also has been stepping out of the White House more often for “impromptu” visits with regular folks.
In the past week, he visited children playing baseball in the District of Columbia, causing memorable rush-hour gridlock, and greeted people on the National Mall during an unannounced stroll.
During the walk on the Mall, Mr. Obama was accompanied by new adviser John Podesta and a White House videographer, who shot footage of the president meeting thrilled tourists and shaking hands with vendors near the White House.
The video quickly attracted more than 1 million views on YouTube.
The president’s advisers say his “year of action” is aimed at getting results when Congress refuses to budge.
They note that the president’s push to raise the federal minimum wage has spurred five states — Maryland, Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Hawaii — to raise their minimum wages.
Large companies such as Gap Inc. also have raised their wages.
In all, the administration said, more than 1 million workers are receiving bigger paychecks as a result.
Republican Karl Rove, who was a top political strategist to George W. Bush, wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week that Mr. Obama’s executive action plan has “produced very few results, making his sixth year in office singularly ineffective so far.”
Some actions, such as Mr. Obama’s proposal to create “MyRA” personal savings accounts, have yet to be implemented. A Treasury Department official said the savings plan is on target to be introduced late this year.
The signs of apathy among Democrats could be part of the reason why the White House is signaling that Mr. Obama will double down on unilateral executive actions. Senior presidential adviser Dan Pfeiffer said the president will be “picking up the pace” this week on executive actions to boost the economy.
The White House is portraying this move as necessary because, Mr. Obama’s aides say, Republicans are ignoring legislation to help the middle class in favor of partisan actions such as a new investigation of the deadly terrorist attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Even the president acknowledges occasionally that his administrative actions are far less consequential than legislation would be. At a small fundraiser for wealthy donors in Chicago on Thursday, Mr. Obama said he needs Democrats to turn out in November to achieve his goals.
“Whatever else I say, whatever issues you are concerned about, ultimately it translates into math: Are we turning out voters who, in turn, produce majorities that allow us to advance the values that we care about?” Mr. Obama said. “Everything else is just talk. And if we don’t feel that sense of urgency in this election, we’re going to have problems.”