None of Barack Obama’s successes are reflected back on him and, midway through his second term, he has become one of the most unpopular American presidents.
With an approval rating of 40 percent, he rivals the unpopularity rating of George W. Bush—to the extent of being a genuine albatross for Democratic candidates in the midterm elections, which took place on November 4, running the risk of tipping the Senate into the hands of Republicans.
“Obama has hated being relegated to a sidelined pariah in the midterms,” notes Politico Magazine harshly, “trapped in a broken system he failed to change.”
The country is coming out of a crisis that laid it low in 2008, and experts attribute that reprieve, at least partially, to the policies of the president. Why, then, is he so disliked?
First, because the economic statistics don’t say everything, and a great part of the population doesn’t feel the effects of the recovery.
“The standard of living for the middle class has barely risen. People are saying to themselves: I might have found a job, but my wife hasn’t, and my son hasn’t either,” points out John Parisella, former Quebec delegate general in New York and expert in American politics.*
New jobs do not always pay well and people don’t do a good job of estimating where they would be without Obama’s revival policies. As proof, according to a recent poll, close to three out of four voters think the American economy is still doing badly.
And Barack Obama isn’t the one convincing them otherwise: the great speaker of 2008 can’t seem to claim his own achievements, which still fall short of the expectations he created.
That’s why perhaps another factor can explain the disaffection facing this president who electrified the crowds with his “Yes, we can” in 2008. His successes are partial, frustrating for those who would have liked to see him go further, and rejected by those who feel that’s he done too much.
Today, Obama is besieged on all sides, writes economist and journalist Paul Krugman in a long plea in favor of the unpopular president, published by the magazine Rolling Stone.
According to him, Obama is being maligned by an unrelenting conservative right, but also by the left, for whom he is not really the progressive he claimed to be. Whereas the media are perpetuating an image of a president who has failed at everything, an assessment that is largely unwarranted, according to Krugman.
In the success column, Krugman cites health care reform — imperfect as it may be, it has significantly widened access to care and reduced the costs of the health care system in the United States. A reform without precedent, and one that is here to stay, according to him.
Other points in Obama’s favor: He improved inspections of the financial world, reduced inequality in abolishing tax breaks for the wealthiest people and bypassed Congress’s blocking of the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. His policies won’t prevent another economic crisis, but they will minimize its impact if need be, writes Paul Krugman.
In all of these scenarios, Obama could have done better, which is what the critics hold on to. But he could have done worse — which is what the public doesn’t see.
Of course, there’s the broken promise of closing Guantanamo. Of course there is the hurried withdrawal from Iraq which opened the door to the fanatics of the Islamic State.
There is that banged-up image, sullied by colossal mistakes, like going to play golf the day the journalist James Foley was decapitated. There is also that impression of a tired president, indecisive in the face of international crises without precedent. A president who seems almost to be counting the days that separate him from the end of his term.
All these factors undermine Barack Obama, who will seemingly pay the price. But for Paul Krugman, as for John Parisella, history could have the last laugh on the detractors of the first black president to have succeeded in being elected to the White House.
To the extent of holding on to the memory of his successes, imperfect as they are, rather than his failures.
* Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.