Sitting in my house outside Austin, Texas on my porch on the Blanco River, as the water slows to a trickle because of the awful drought and historic heat wave (we have already had 56 days about 100 degrees!), I wonder if this August represents for President Obama a late summer resetting of the table as it was for President Bush in August 2005.
In 2005, President Bush had a tenuous grip on his ability to affect public opinion and communicate effectively with the American public. Two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had dragged on; casualties continued to pile up; his leadership overall seemed to be ineffective, and he seemed disconnected from the American public. August ended with Hurricane Katrina, basically the tipping point for his presidency. President Bush couldn't recover. As I and my co-authors, Ron Fournier and Doug Sosnik, noted in the book Applebee's America, the events of August 2005 and President Bush's haplessness in handling them broke his value connection with the American public, and he never recovered. His approval rating never again got above 42 percent, and no speech he gave or policy initiative he launched could fix that fundamental turn by the American public.
I am not saying Obama's situation is as dire as President Bush's was from 2005, but it certainly has a similar feel. His approval ratings have now sunk to the unelectable spot of the low forties. The last few speeches he has given have, at best, fallen on deaf ears. They may have made his political situation worse. Two weeks ago he gave a high profile speech in the Oval Office on the debt-ceiling crisis, and leaders of both political parties ignored him. And Standard and Poor's just downgraded the country's bond rating for the first time in our history because of ineffectual leadership in Washington, DC. While the rating agency didn't put the full blame on President Obama, as leader of the country he owns the problem S&P highlighted.
Can he recover from his August or has there been a fundamental break with his connection with the American public? I honestly don't know at this time. We will learn in retrospect. Still, it does feel like a real turn has taken place in President Obama's ability to lead the country. And this isn't a communications or marketing problem. This is a substantive issue that can only be fixed by a substantive solution.
A couple ways out from my perspective:
- Another crisis confronts the administration and the country, and President Obama handles it well and the country trusts his leadership again.
- He begins to actually fix the real problem the American public is sick of -- the dysfunction and discord in Washington, DC. Today, the process and means of governing is busted, and that is what needs addressing. It can't be fixed by photo-ops on the golf course or short meetings at the White House. It needs to fixed by building enduring relationships with opposing leaders in Washington through time and much effort, and moving away from short-term transactional relationships that President Obama (and President Bush) fell in the trap of doing.
Will Republicans meet him part way? Again, I don't know, but the American public would like to see President Obama give it the college try. Is the president capable of building these kinds of relationships and fixing the dysfunction in DC? I think so, but it will require discipline and an acknowledgement of mistakes, both of which he seems incapable of at this point.
The country is at serious economic and political risk, and President Obama's presidency seems on the edge of falling into political irrelevancy. Now is the time to address both problems in a different fundamental way. If the same playbook is used on either problem, the same results will happen -- it will only get worse. And President Obama's river of leadership capacity will slow to a trickle in this heat of August, and the only thing left available is for the voters to look elsewhere for rain and relief.
Matthew Dowd, a National Journal columnist and analyst for ABC News, is a veteran political strategist who has worked for Democratic and Republican politicians -- including former President George W. Bush.
This post originally appeared in National Journal.