How times change.
At the end of President Obama's first 100 days, he was at the top of his game, his approval rating was over 60%, the stimulus package had passed and the public waited for it to work its magic on the economy. Around these parts, however, some cautionary advice was offered to watch out for "rhetorical overkill" that could endanger "his likability and credibility."
Today, on his 200th day in the White House, those words seem somewhat prophetic. Yes, Obama got his first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor confirmed on Thursday. But not only did that 68-31 vote turn out to be more partisan than anticipated, there are other storm clouds on the horizon.
A new Quinnipiac poll has him at just 50% approval and 42% disapproval. While others look a little better, the overall picture is the same -- a downward trend. He's clearly lost control of the health care debate. This month's PR push is beginning to look more like a defensive gesture to recover lost support, rather an affirmative building effort. When White House operatives are forced to refer to health care reform opponents in town hall meetings across the country as a "mob," it reeks of desperation.
How did it fall apart so quickly in the jog from Day 101 to 200? Blame Obama's handling of three issues: The economy, health care and the Henry Louis Gates affair:
1) Economy. The public was initially willing to accept ratcheted up spending, but no more. The same poll that showed Obama's dwindling approval rating also revealed deep concern over rising deficits. With another estimated 550,000 jobless claims filed in July -- and the deficit having reached $1.3 trillion -- it becomes more difficult for Obama to convince a wary public that his economic proposals are working. "Cash for clunkers" is looking like not just a program, but a metaphor for Obama's general plan for the economy: throw money at problems.
2) Health care. In a vacuum, the promise of near-universal health coverage sounds great. But, just as with the Clinton approach 15 years ago, the more the public hears about the various plans coming out of Congress, the less they like the idea. What's scaring people away? Fear of both the long-term fiscal costs of a health care program and fear that the insurance benefits that most Americans already have might be endangered.
At one time, the White House might have imagined that Obama's personal popularity would convince a wary public that the health care reform was essential to the nation's long-term recovery. But his likeability isn't what it used to be. For that, one can thank...
3) Henry Louis Gates. The aforementioned Q poll is the first one that truly illustrates what self-inflicted damage Obama did with his press conference response to the Gates arrest:
Obama acted "stupidly" in the dispute between a black professor and a white police officer, American voters say 49 - 33%. By 62-26%, voters say the president should not have intervened in this matter. While black voters largely back the president's position and involvment ine matter, white voters overwhelmingly did not.
Obama battled to win over working-class whites during his primary battle with Hillary Clinton, and they remain the loosest part of Obama's coalition. The Gates affair re-stoked their suspicions about Obama. Doubts inspired by the race controversy may have spilled over into white voters' views of Obama in general, as predicted here at the time.
The question for the president now is: Can he recalibrate the debate in a month where the public traditionally tunes out politics and especially policy? He has little choice. If he burns up political capital and still takes it on the chin with a signature issue, Democrats face a woeful mid-term election atmosphere in 2010 -- especially if the economy doesn't turn around.