As the city of Washington prepares for its time in the spotlight tomorrow night (the "State Of The Union" speech being approximately Washington's "Oscar night" on primetime television), pundits will go into overdrive on the question of "what it all means," for roughly the next week or so. Every paragraph of the speech will be examined microscopically, supporters will cheer, opponents will boo, and conclusions will be drawn among the inside-the-Beltway set.
All well and good, and all to be expected from the president's annual "laundry list." But before we even get to that point, it's worth pointing out that Obama seems to be making a recovery of sorts in the public eye. Now, this trendline is rather fragile, and could change overnight. Then again, Obama seems positioned pretty well to ride out the next few months, at the very least. If he rolls out some executive action on issues wildly popular with the public during this time period, then he could make a complete recovery, politically. It goes without saying that this would help out the Democrats later in the year, during the midterms.
This may all be starry-eyed optimism, I fully admit (this whole column is going to be pretty rosy-tinted, just to warn everyone). But it does have some basis in reality. Obama's poll numbers hit all-time lows last November and early December. Night after night, the lead on the network news was "Obamacare site still broken!" which hurt the president badly in the job approval polls. His daily average (on RealClearPolitics.com) sank to 39.8 percent on December 2, just after his announcement that the Obamacare site was (finally!) fixed. The sub-40-percent range is a dangerous one for any president to find himself in, and comparisons to George W. Bush's numbers were beginning to become common.
Obama, however, only spent one day in that range. The news that the site was working (and the absence of all the news stories about how horribly broken it was) began to take effect. Obama's poll numbers rose to around 42 percent by mid-December. The most recent monthly polling by major media organizations now puts Obama's job approval at 45 percent (ABC/Washington Post), 42 percent (FOX), 46 percent (CBS), and 45 percent (Associated Press/GfK). His daily average now stands at 43.7 percent.
Of course, these numbers aren't all that great, taken in their absolute sense. The low 40s are nothing to brag about, really. They're only good relatively -- they only look good in relation to how bad Obama's poll numbers were a few weeks ago. Obama's numbers hitting the 45-46 percent range is a lot better than polls showing him below 40 percent, obviously. But going back a little further, what this means is that Obama has almost completely recovered his public standing from the downswing caused by the Obamacare site. Even Obama's daily average just rose to a point it hasn't seen since late October.
Giving a State Of The Union address with rising poll numbers at your back is preferable to the alternatives. But the annual speech doesn't have anywhere near the impact with the public as it used to. So Obama may get a slight bump upwards as a result of the speech, but the magnitude of this will likely be small, and may just be part of the upward trend which already exists. Still, getting an hour in primetime never hurts.
It's worth considering the near-term future after the speech as well, when trying to spot such trends. February will begin with a gigantic battle over raising the debt ceiling. Obama is going to try to stay firm on demanding a "clean bill" from Congress. His position has always been that he "doesn't negotiate" over the debt ceiling. But there are two things which are going to help Obama in this political fracas. The first is how exhausted the American people are with such budgetary brinksmanship. Obama's poll numbers stayed steady all throughout the government shutdown period last October -- even though it went on for longer than most predicted and even though the Obamacare website's failure was also happening in full public view at the same time.
President Obama held firm throughout the shutdown, and in the end he won. It helped that Republicans couldn't even figure out which hostage they were attempting to take, but Obama's strong position and refusal to budge played pretty well with the public -- much better than the Republican position. Watch for this to be repeated in early February.
The other reason why this battle will be different (at least, one hopes) from the government shutdown is that the debt ceiling is a far more dangerous thing to play around with than just funding the federal government. The whole world's economy would be affected if the Republicans truly do push the United States of America into default. Republican leaders are smart enough (again, one hopes) not to push the issue as far as they did during the shutdown. Meaning they will have to back down at the last minute -- which helps Obama's position enormously.
Which brings us back to tomorrow's speech. Obama's team has been leaking that the president is now going to look much more seriously at what executive actions he can take without congressional involvement. So maybe his fallback position in the negotiations over the debt ceiling might become "I've got a trillion-dollar platinum coin in my pocket, and I will use it if I need to." Beyond the debt ceiling, Obama may take the opportunity tomorrow to unveil a list of executive actions he'll be making in the next few months. These will (no doubt) be centered on issues that have a huge majority of the public behind them. If Obama can make some progress in things that actually affect the average American's life, it's hard to see how this could hurt him in the job approval polling. Oh, sure, Republicans will whine about Obama's "imperial presidency" and use words such as "tyranny," but if Obama is successfully getting popular ideas implemented it's hard to see how Republican yelping is going resonate much (beyond their own base, of course, during a midterm primary season).
Obama has, so far, been fairly reluctant to use the full powers of his office, when measured by executive orders given by presidents in the recent past. But if he wants to get anything significant done in 2014 -- an election year -- then he is quite likely going to have to act on his own. The pre-speech leaks show that the White House now understands this reality.
President Obama will kick off his sixth year in office with the usual pageantry tomorrow night. He will (as all presidents do) present a list of priorities from his political agenda. This time around, however, there may be fewer entreaties to Congress to pass bills and more solid promises of executive actions to come. Obama's polling numbers have already largely recovered from the hit they took over the Obamacare website. His numbers are back up to where they were before the failed website launch really took its toll, and just around the corner is going to be another chance to stare down the congressional Republicans over their hostage-taking budgeting. Afterwards, he will be issuing executive orders to change some things that Congress has proven incapable of changing. And the public always loves seeing things get done in Washington, rather than the usual gridlock. While most pundits are still stuck on "Obama's poll numbers are really low!" an emerging story is developing that will be hard to ignore for much longer: Obama is bouncing back.
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