The Precipitous Slide

By Natalie Gewargis

Sep 2, 2009 8:38am

President Obama’s job approval ratings have fallen more steeply than any other newly elected president and the White House is well aware that drop could impact the president’s ability to advance his agenda.

Senior White House officials tell ABC News the president will start a new push and give a speech on health care possibly as early as next week to outline specific proposals, just in time for Congress’ return from recess. 

"Now is the time to begin to pull together the various strands and solutions from the four bills that have been marked up and other proposals," a White House official says. "Basically all the cards are on the table. The president is considering all of his options on how to advance the debate and get reform passed" which "includes possibly laying out a more specific vision."

It also seems likely that the White House will give up on any hopes that the bipartisan "Gang of Six" Senators working in the Senate Finance Committee will produce legislation that will advance the process. A White House official says the health care reform debate is entering a new phase, "driven in part by the actions of some in the GOP including Sens. Chuck Grassley(R-IA) and Mike Enzi (R-WY), which indicates that they are essentially walking away from the negotiating table."

In recent days, both Republican Senators have assailed the president's health care reform efforts. Wyoming Sen. Enzi tore apart the Democrats’ health care proposal in this weekend’s GOP radio address, saying it would “raid Medicare,” will interfere in Americans’ medical care, and "will actually make our nation's finances sicker without saving you money."

Grassley, at the center of bipartisan discussions in the Senate as the ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee, recently sent out a fundraising letter in which he asked for voters" "immediate support in helping me defeat Obama-care."

Currently at 50 percent job approval in the daily Gallup poll, if President Obama’s ratings dip any lower before November, it would be the second-fastest drop of an elected president to below majority approval since World War II, behind only President Bill Clinton.

The president’s popularity at the start of his term was high, at 68 percent, but he was faced with numerous challenges coming into office, including a recession and unpopular wars abroad. “You have to remember that President Obama started from significantly higher rate,” said presidential historian Mark K. Updegrove. “He was bound to slip.”

Clinton, whose own health care overhaul push in his first time was unsuccessful, fell below 50 percent approval four months into his presidency because of controversies such as Travelgate and issues like the debate over gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.

Responding to poll numbers, a senior White House official told ABC News, "If we only did what was popular in polls, the banks would have failed, there would be no domestic automakers, and we'd pull all our troops out of Afghanistan tomorrow. But none of those decisions would be in the economic or national security interests of the country."

Adding to Obama’s problems are an increasingly unpopular and costly war in Afghanistan, and his own struggles with health care reform.

“Health care has been a vexing issue for all modern presidents. For those few bold enough to address it, it’s been an albatross,” Updegrove said. “Health care reform is an easy issue to exploit because of its inherent complexity. The political opposition can use that ambiguity and complexity to their own political ends, and I think that’s what you’re seeing with President Obama."

Low job approval ratings could impact the president's ability to get anything done this fall. Even Democrats are practically begging the president to improve his game on health care reform.

"I think the president's got to decide in a sense, and he has, and to step up and really frame this again for us," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday. Dodd is the acting chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, which drafted a Senate health care reform bill.

It remains to be seen what the long-term implications are of President Obama's precipitous slide. Seven months into his term, President George H.W. Bush was at a high of 73 percent, but he was not reelected. His son, President George W. Bush was at 61 percent at this point in his presidency, but is now known for the most unpopular second term on record.

Updegrove said Obama still has a chance to turn his ratings around.

“The American people like President Obama. They don’t necessarily like his policies right now, but he does have the trust of the American people, and he does have the good will,” Updegrove said.

With a tough health care fight still pending, difficult days likely ahead in Afghanistan — not to mention a looming flu pandemic, it doesn’t look like President Obama's job is going to get any easier in the coming months.

-jpt

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