What Do Obama's Bad Poll Numbers Mean?

Recent poll numbers indicate that President Obama's popularity, currently at 39%, is suffering in the wake of both the technical glitches and political criticism from of the first few weeks of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Obama's poor poll numbers can also be attributed to a natural dip in popularity as two term presidents approach their sixth year in office. The president in this situation has often become overly familiar to the American people while not yet bathed in the reminiscences and nostalgia that characterize the last months of their term. Ronald Reagan in late 1985 and early 1986 and George W. Bush in 2005-6 were in a similar position.

Reagan and Bush both presided over big losses for their party in the midterm election during their sixth year. It is not yet clear whether Obama will also see his party lose seats or whether, like Bill Clinton in 1998, Obama will manage to minimize the electoral damage. Given the tumult and extraordinarily unpopular state of the Republican Party today, it is possible that 2014 could be a decent year for the Democrats despite general historic trends.

Nobody in Obama's operation can be surprised at the current state of the president's popularity, buthe poor poll numbers are balanced out by a solid reelection victory as well as some significant accomplishments including the ACA itself. Nonetheless, it is difficult not to wonder whether given where Obama was going to be in late 2013 anyway, the administration could have done more in the first years of the presidency. The extent and viciousness of the opposition to a very modest health care bill, for example, raises the question of whether, if that opposition was going to occur anyway, the administration should have pushed harder for a more progressive health care bill.

When Obama was sworn in as president it was clear barring something very dramatic, that being in office in late 2013 with poor poll ratings was, comparatively speaking, a good scenario for Obama. Many presidents don't make it that far. Others, like George W. Bush, make it to a second term without any major accomplishments and see their numbers and their party's hopes continue to plummet throughout that second term.

In this context, Obama's current poll numbers are not an indication that his presidency, or even the ACA, is a failure. Rather these numbers are a reflection of the natural cycle of presidencies exacerbated by the bungled rollout of the ACA. This is not good for the President, but it does not mean a great deal, nor are these numbers unlikely to change. Reading too much into them, as the Republicans are almost certain to do, would be a mistake. Obama is having a bad month and heading into a tough political year, but he is very far from being finished a political force, despite being more than halfway done with his term in office.

It remains true, as has been the case for most of Obama's presidency, that Obama's political standing is being bolstered by the extreme dislike the American people currently feel towards the Republican led congress. A 39% job approval rating is very low for any chief executive, but when congress is at 9%, the president still has a fair amount of leverage. The Republicans in congress, on the other hand, because of their lack of public support based in no small way on the government shutdown controversy of a few weeks ago are in no position to take advantage of Obama's current poor poll ratings.

During his last years in office, Obama will have several items on his agenda, but fixing the ACA should be at the top of that list. The administration has framed the ACA as the signature legislative accomplishment of Obama's presidency. Fixing the ACA will not be easy, as clearing up computer problems is only part of it. The broader problems of ensuring that people can keep their insurance policies and that younger healthier people sign up for health care through the program are more important. Making progress, or even to be seen as working hard to make progress can begin to turn Obama's poll numbers around. The state of the Republican's in congress makes this somewhat easier for Obama as his political opponents are discredited outside of their own partisan base.

Bad polling numbers in the middle of a president's second term are not devastating or even very unusual, but they also cannot be ignored. If Obama is able to address the problems with the ACA, his numbers will improve putting his party in a good position for 2014 and even 2016, but if the next several years are defined by the failure of the ACA, Obama's presidency will be badly damaged.