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July 8, 2014

MICHAEL GERSON: The divided states of the president.

The headline – “Poll: Obama Worst President Since World War II” – was both provocative and misleading. The Quinnipiac survey did, indeed, place President Obama at the top of the worst since FDR. But this was largely a measure of partisan concentration. Republicans were united in their unfavorable historical judgment of Obama. Democrats divided their votes (and would insist, I'd imagine, that they have more options to choose from).  

We already know that Obama is a highly polarizing figure. But beneath the headline, the poll identified serious problems for the president. Fifty-four percent of respondents said the Obama administration is “not competent running the government.” (Shout-out to HealthCare.gov.) A majority believe the president does not have “strong leadership qualities.” Obama is solidifying a perception that he is out of his depth. Once made, such an impression is difficult to unmake.  

And the failings of the Obama era are contributing to a deeper crisis for liberalism. Public confidence that government generally does the right thing is near an all-time low. In a recent Gallup poll, 79 percent of Americans agreed that corruption is “widespread throughout the government” – up from 59 percent in 2006. During a presidency that placed considerable trust in government, public trust in government has been badly shaken.  

Obama is left with a job approval rating – in the low to mid-40s – that is about the same as when his party lost 63 House seats during the 2010 midterm elections. On the stump, his strategy is a ferocious peevishness. Republicans “don't do anything except block me and call me names” – an accusation in the best rhetorical tradition of school yards everywhere.

On his executive orders, Obama challenges the House speaker: “So sue me.” As a former speechwriter, I'd advise greater care in the choice of catchphrases. When Ronald Reagan goaded Congress on tax increases with “Go ahead, make my day,” he was channeling Clint Eastwood. “So sue me” sounds like the guy who steals your parking space and taunts you afterward. Petulance does not signal strength.  

On policy issues, Obama has few places to turn. Public impressions of the economy seem set. Obamacare is enduringly controversial. The IRS and Veterans Affairs scandals continue to unfold. Foreign policy hardly offers a refuge – as years of disengagement in the Middle East now require engagement on dramatically less favorable terms.

Obama therefore turns to the two issues that Democrats keep in their back pocket, confident that broad social currents are running in their favor: immigration and contraception. (I suppose many Americans, not just Democrats, keep contraception in their back pocket.) When it comes to Hispanic voters, younger voters and single voters, Republicans can seem out of touch (because they mostly are).

So the midterm contest sets up: “Out of his depth” vs. “Out of touch.”

“I don't want to pit red America against blue America,” Obama once said.  Now he organizes the sorting of America between red and blue. Best president or worst, he has left a nation more divided.

Michael Gerson was a speech writer for the Bush administration and now a columnist for the Washington Post.

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