When presidents become unpopular, they are no longer welcome on the campaign trail. They’re trapped in Washington, watching their party abandon them. It happened to Lyndon B. Johnson, whose presidency collapsed amid protests over Vietnam. He left Washington only to visit his Texas ranch and assorted military bases, where he gave patriotic speeches to silent battalions. Richard Nixon, drowning in Watergate, was confined to Camp David and a few foreign capitals, where he was greeted as a global strategist. Jimmy Carter, crushed by the Iranian hostage crisis and a bad economy, stopped traveling beyond the Rose Garden.
Now, the same oppressive walls are closing in on President Barack Obama. He is welcome only in the palatial homes of Hollywood stars and hedge-fund billionaires or the well-kept fairways of Martha’s Vineyard.
The contrast with 2008 is striking and painful. Six years ago, his acolytes fainted as he read from the teleprompter. He spun promises like cotton candy. He grandly promised that, when he moved into the Oval Office, he would close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and open the files of government, making it the most transparent in history. He would wind down America’s long wars and mend America’s strained relationships with Russia, Iran, Syria, China, North Korea and Venezuela by opening the warm hand of friendship. Most of all, he would reunite an America divided by war, race and income. There was no Red America or Blue America, he said, just the United States of America. He would lead it toward that promised future, somewhere over the rainbow.
Now, those promises are a wind-blown ash heap, smoldering just enough to warm a dwindling band of true believers. With the U.S. Senate in the balance, not one embattled candidate wishes to be seen with him. Zero. They are happy for him to raise money, just as long as they can be in Bora Bora when he’s in Baton Rouge, La. The most embarrassing moment came during a Kentucky debate, when the Democratic Senate candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, refused even to acknowledge that she had voted for President Obama.
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What went wrong? Ideology, say the true believers and their staunchest opponents. The left says he compromised too much, desperate to pass his agenda. The right says he refused to compromise at all, sticking to his socialist agenda as a community organizer long after the voters had rejected it.
That may explain why Berkeley, Calif., and Plano, Texas, lost faith, but it doesn’t explain why most of America has. Today, the president’s job approval is hovering around 40 percent, according to Gallup’s daily tracking polls. Disapproval, which was only 15 percent when he took office, is now about 55 percent. Less than 30 percent of the country thinks we are “on the right track.”
Those numbers are not driven by ideology. They are driven by results – really lousy results. Most American voters are pragmatic. They want solutions, not rigid ideas. They want effective implementation, not blame shifting. When things don’t work out, they want candid explanations and a change of direction. President Obama has failed on all counts.
Americans haven’t just lost faith in the president. They have lost faith in virtually all important institutions. That includes Congress and, increasingly, the U.S. Supreme Court. The only institution to escape is the U.S. military, which is still highly regarded. Gallup says it “has never measured lower levels of trust in the federal government to handle pressing issues than now. That includes the Watergate era in 1974.” The president, who stands atop the government pyramid, is damaged most by this loss of confidence.
In Obama’s case, the public’s loss of confidence is compounded by a dawning realization that the White House is more likely to conceal and spin than to offer truthful explanations. To take two obvious examples: During the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly took credit for killing off al-Qaida and withdrawing all American troops from Iraq. Now, faced with rising attacks from Islamic terrorists (words the president never utters), he offers a lawyer’s brief, saying only that he destroyed “core” al-Qaida. Even that is a tissue of fabrications. The Khorasan Group, which the U.S. is now fighting in Syria, is simply a cell of al-Qaida’s senior leadership. Meanwhile, a cluster-bomb of Islamic terror groups, most affiliated with al-Qaida, have sprung up across the Middle East, the Maghreb, and sub-Saharan Africa. As for Iraq, the president now says America’s catastrophic withdrawal was not his doing at all. The Baghdad government is completely responsible. Apparently, he just read about it.
Given this dismal record, it’s not surprising the public has lost faith. Whether the topic is Ebola, the Islamic State, the IRS, National Security Agency spying, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or a dozen others, the White House spins, the Congress does nothing, and the public’s trust in our basic institutions drains away. That’s bad news for the president. It’s far worse for our country.
Charles Lipson is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.