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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Obama Is a Man of Political Paradox

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

When President Barack Obama makes his final State of the Union address Tuesday, one of the guests seated in the box of first lady Michelle Obama will be Edith Childs. Mrs. Childs enjoyed a brief period of fame when, at an early Obama campaign stop in South Carolina in 2007, she energized the small crowd by starting the chant, “Fired up! Ready to go!”

That became something of a rallying cry for Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign and aptly captured the excitement that accompanied his historic victory run.

Over time, the excitement gave way to the more sober realities of governing amid deep partisan divisions. His election will always be a historic one, but what is most striking as Mr. Obama makes his final visit to the well of the House of Representatives are the many paradoxes that have come to mark his presidency.

He has never become either wildly popular or broadly unpopular with the country. His job-approval rating in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in December stood at a mediocre 43%. Over the seven years he has been in office, it has never gone above 61%—a level reached only in his early months in office—and never below 40%. It has generally hovered just below 50%.

He has never reached either the periods of high popularity enjoyed by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton or the levels of unpopularity endured by his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose job-approval rating stood at 34% at this point in his presidency.

The power of his Democratic Party has declined significantly during his time in office. It has lost 13 seats in the U.S. Senate and 69 in the House, as well as 11 governorships, 910 state legislative seats and the majorities in 30 state legislative chambers.

Yet he remains the Democrats’ strongest figure. He generates higher positive feelings among Americans than either of his would-be Democratic successors, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, and higher than any of his potential Republican successors. His support among African-Americans remains rock solid. His support among young people and Hispanics is diminished, but still strong. The electoral coalition that can win the White House for Democrats remains identified with him.

Some of the key positions he espouses—action on guns and climate change, keeping troops out of the Middle East, preserving the main elements of his health-care overhaul—are more popular among Americans than is his advocacy for them. Indeed, public polling suggests that attaching his name to a policy position means that some Americans, who otherwise might voice support for it, will oppose it.
How can these paradoxes be explained?

It may be that Mr. Obama was simply destined to serve in a time of unprecedented ideological division in the nation and a near-even split of partisan power in Washington, a situation that limits everybody’s latitude. Perhaps the divides have been too deep for anybody to overcome. Or perhaps he has so far failed to find the voice or the political operating style that would allow him to continue that sense of unity that greeted his election and inauguration.

Perhaps his big twin early achievements—a big economic stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act—were always bound to be polarizing. Or perhaps his inability in those early days to win any bipartisan support for them set a polarizing precedent that has stuck.

Perhaps recovery from the twin traumas he inherited—a costly war in Iraq and a financial crisis that produced broad aftereffects—left the country both angry and cynical.

Mr. Obama serves at a time when virtually every institution, save for the military, is falling in Americans’ esteem.

There’s one other little-discussed but inescapable question: Has Mr. Obama always confronted a ceiling in how widely he would be loved or even accepted because he is the nation’s first African-American president?

In any case, this is where he stands at the beginning of his eighth year. Both Messrs. Reagan and Clinton used a final year to overcome earlier traumas, achieve some goals and rise in public esteem. Mr. Obama now has the same opportunity.

The political math suggests little chance of big domestic legislative achievements in an election year, with Congress controlled by the opposition party. But the Republicans now running Congress—House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—have shown they are willing and able to get at least some things done with Democrats.

Most of the big goals that could be achieved—ratifying a Pacific trade deal, for example, and formally authorizing the fight against Islamic State—lie in the foreign-policy zone. Maybe that is where Mr. Obama can get fired up and ready to go for his stretch run.


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