WASHINGTON — President Obama is furiously fending off those “winter of discontent” stories, and it’s not even winter yet.
The news about the health care law that is supposed to be his greatest achievement is almost uniformly downbeat. The public is unhappy with national politicians of all kinds. And then there are the polls, a currency that the political world — despite ritualistic denials — values more than any other.
On Tuesday, the Quinnipiac poll showed Obama with the lowest approval rating of his presidency. Only 39 percent approved his performance; 54 percent disapproved. The Quinnipiac numbers echoed those of a recent Pew survey that pegged the president’s job approval at 41 percent, with 53 percent disapproving.
In situations of this sort, there is always a search for an instant repair. “Fix the website” is the most obvious, and it’s certainly necessary. But a tech problem has now been compounded by the reality of health care reform itself. The small but highly visible individual insurance market was volatile before there ever was Obamacare. But it’s hardly surprising that some of those who are in it are angry when plans are canceled and premiums rise.
The very purpose of insurance reform is to create a broad market in which the less healthy will be able to get coverage at affordable prices. This made a certain amount of cost shifting inevitable, a truth captured succinctly by The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, one of the nation’s premier health policy writers: “You can’t fix health insurance without changing health insurance.”
But the president’s promise that Americans would be able to keep their policies downplayed this risk, and it now haunts him. A Republican opposition that never wanted Obamacare to work — “an organized constituency for failure,” in former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers’ phrase — jumped on Obama’s words even as GOP politicians disrupted the law at the state level.
What this means is that there will be no quick fix. Obama faces a longer slog, and he has to ask where he can begin his political recovery.
A detailed comparison of two Pew surveys — one conducted in December 2012 that found Obama with a 55-39 approval rating and the more recent survey with the 12-point approval deficit — shows that while he has lost support across the board, he has taken a big hit among two classic swing groups, white Catholics and political independents.
Conservative independents who didn’t much like him before like him even less now. But most striking are the president’s severe losses with two groups of independents: those who call themselves liberal and those who lean toward the Democrats. In principle, both should be open to reconciliation with the president. Many in their ranks may be turned off not only by the health care plan’s failures but also by the controversy over NSA surveillance and possibly the battle earlier this year over intervention in Syria.