John Kerry, the Democratic Senator who lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush, was the last politician to be labeled a “flip-flopper.” Now Obama is being called fickle, because he decided to stick with the U.S. position to reject banning anti-personnel land mines, despite the fact that his staff had announced his decision that he would do just the opposite a few days earlier.
A policy change, which would have been considered a positive step by human rights activists and liberal Democrats, not only illustrates how quickly positions fluctuate in this administration, but also shows that Obama cannot please anyone at the moment.
During the election campaign, it seemed that everything Obama touched turned to gold. Whatever the subject, he garnered applause. His hapless opponent groused that it probably wouldn’t be long before he started walking on water. But now, precisely the opposite has happened: Everything Obama does reaps harsh criticism. Not even his first opportunity to pardon the White House Thanksgiving turkey (this time it was a North Carolina bird named Courage) escaped criticism. Several newspapers accused Obama of giving an uninspired speech that was “too short and too simple” on that occasion.
Political scientists call the phenomenon that happens after the first year of every presidential term a “Reverse J-Curve.” A president’s positives decline on a path that looks like the letter “J” turned backward. “That’s completely normal and has been that way ever since opinion polls tracked presidential popularity,” explained Marvin King, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi. The J-Curve decline in Obama’s case is actually not as steep as it was with many previous presidents; he began with a 70 percent approval rating, and is now just under 50 percent, which is still considered astonishingly good.
Professor King considers foreign policy subjects, such as the about-face with Israel on their settlement expansion policy or the tedious decision process on a new course in Afghanistan, to play a subordinate role in domestic American sentiment. The overriding issue is health care reform, set for debate in the Senate next Monday. If the president gets it through Congress, his public image will rapidly change from deliberative plodder to dynamic man of action. As King says, “People will want to make him a saint again.”
Before any of that happens, however, Obama is doomed to celebrate a relatively thankless Thanksgiving. Even the normally friendly Washington Post is urging the President to show more fighting spirit.
Next week’s scheduled decision on troop strength for Afghanistan may already be decided. Pentagon sources indicate that Obama will announce a surge of some 30,000 soldiers and an escalation of hostilities. That sounds less like a “flip-flopper” than it does like an old war dog who, ironically, will journey a few days later to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
King is convinced that in 2010, when mid-term elections for the House and Senate will take place, Obama’s approval curve will again be on the rise. The reason for that will also be partly due to the fact that Obama’s election strategy will again zero in on Republicans. One main theme will be immigration policy. On that subject, Republicans are as divided as ever between immigration-friendly fiscal conservatives and the rest of the party.