A 'frustrated' President Obama looks to turn things around

ByRichard Wolf, USA TODAY
September 1, 2011, 8:53 PM

WASHINGTON -- "Frustrated."

That was the subject line of an e-mail sent to millions of supporters late Wednesday night from President Obama's re-election campaign. It expressed his frustration with Congress' unwillingness to deal in bipartisan fashion with the country's economic problems.

While the message was aimed at Congress as Obama prepares to deliver next Thursday's speech on jobs, it just as easily could have summarized his plight during the past four months — perhaps the most frustrating of his presidency.

Since his triumphant announcement on May 1 that Osama bin Laden was dead, the president has been blocked by Republicans at almost every turn, from cutting deficits to scheduling speeches.

Along the way, the economy has sunk closer to a double-dip recession, the financial markets have tumbled, the U.S. credit rating has been downgraded, and the nation has only narrowly avoided default.

Even the things Obama has gotten right haven't seemed to affect his standing in the polls: the killing of bin Laden, the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi's government, the economic policies that even some conservative economists now say helped to avoid a second Great Depression.

Then came Wednesday night, when the leader of the free world couldn't set his own schedule. He asked congressional leaders if he could address a joint session next Wednesday. The answer from House Speaker John Boehner: No. How's Thursday?

"Welcome to the real world. This is how it works, guys," says John Feehery, who was a spokesman for Democrat Dennis Hastert when he was House speaker. "I think the president is losing" in his day-to-day battles with Republicans, Feehery says.

The trend began shortly after bin Laden's demise. In order to avoid a first-ever government default, Obama had to capitulate to Republicans on cutting spending without raising taxes on the wealthy or special interests, as he had urged. The deal didn't impress stock markets, which tumbled. One credit agency, Standard & Poor's, lowered the nation's credit rating.

As the economy slid, so did Obama's approval ratings — down to a record-low 40% in the latest Gallup Poll, after having been above 50% in early May. Even so, Republicans fared even worse in the polls — Congress received only a 13% approval rating in a Gallup Poll last month.

"This has been a tough four months for the country," not just the president, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer says. "We have had tough economic news; we've had the debacle of the brinksmanship over the debt ceiling; we've had natural disasters.

"The country has been frustrated by inaction in Washington. The president shares that frustration. The people who are blocking action have been the Republicans in the House," Pfeiffer says.

The situation may be more difficult for Obama to overcome than it was for his predecessors. During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt could count on a solidly Democratic Congress. An economic rebound helped Ronald Reagan recover from 35% approval ratings in 1983. When Bill Clinton lost Congress in 1995, he had a stronger economy.

By contrast, Obama is faced with a weak economy, a Republican House and a GOP minority in the Senate that can bottle up action.

"Is there a president who could be strong enough to turn those Republicans into pussycats? There is no strength a president could have to overcome that," says George Edwards, an expert on the presidency at Texas A&M University.

Republican consultant Kevin Madden, a former spokesman for Boehner and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, says Obama is having difficulty living up to his own promises and his supporters' expectations.

Obama "convinced the electorate in 2008 that he was a visionary and he was a problem solver," Madden says. Today, he "seems only focused on the politics of the moment, the politics of the news cycle."

Many Democrats expect Obama to start turning things around next Thursday by offering ideas for the economy that would be difficult for Republicans to oppose, such as tax credits for businesses and construction jobs for the unemployed.

"If they choose not to do simple things that could help create jobs, then I think the American people will keep that in mind as they are given a choice in 2012," says Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director for Obama.

Obama's ability to recover cannot be discounted. At this point in their presidencies, Reagan had a 43% approval rating and Clinton was at 46%, but they both went on to resounding re-election victories.

"This is a tough time, and the polls are going to go up and down, and the president's going to have a tough race," says Democratic consultant Bill Burton, a former Obama deputy press secretary. "But I still think that he's going to prevail."

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