Don't call Obama a lame duck just yet

Posted at 2:43 PM, Jul 01, 2015

President Obama is a latter-day Lazarus, rising repeatedly from the political dead. That is, if you believe his press clippings.                  

A couple of weeks back, when a major trade bill was stalled in Congress, commentators wrote Obama off as a hopeless case, unable to achieve anything for the rest of the term.

Lo and behold, the trade bill was revived. Then the Supreme Court gave the president what he wanted on same-sex marriage and his health care law. Suddenly, the political class is talking about Obama as the comeback kid, unleashed to pursue a more liberal course.

"Appraisals of Obama in recent weeks have been bipolar," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles. "He's gone from dead duck to the resurrection."

That's life in the White House. These ceaseless, exaggerated appraisals and reappraisals, however, have accelerated in the Obama era.

Part of that may be him - stories about Obama struggling fit within the larger narrative. For conservatives, he can't do anything right, while many progressives are disappointed that he hasn't lived up to their hopes from the 2008 campaign.

But much of the temperature taking has to do with the media culture. Gallup now generates polls about the president's approval rating on a daily basis. Assessments about how things are going for the president are yet more continuous on social media. "These sorts of evaluations have intensified," says William Schneider, a public policy professor at George Mason University. "These kinds of final judgments that are never final -- he's up, he down, he's struggling, he's a hero -- are constant."

Such judgments are not only subject to change, but are bound to be premature. The wheels of government policy turn much slower than the media cycle. Presidential reputations are now treated like a stock that surges upward or falls back every day, making its ultimate trajectory uncertain.

"There's this tendency to look at any mistake or slip-up and declare the president is done," says Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a University of North Texas political scientist. "Presidents often have to suck it up and stay the course."

Tuning out the daily noise doesn't mean things are turning out well. Courts have frowned on Obama's unilateral moves on immigration, while the Supreme Court itself gave his central climate change initiative -- looking to cut back on carbon emissions from power plants -- five thumbs down.

But pundits are too quick in general to declare second-term presidents finished. Any president, even an unpopular one deep into his term, retains enormous influence, thanks to command of the bully pulpit, the veto pen and foreign policy.

In Obama's case, it's fair to say that he's unlikely to get anything else big through this Congress. Still, his speeches and proposals can help frame the agenda. In some areas, he can do more than that. Obama knows he can't get a minimum wage hike through Congress, for instance, or require employers to offer paid sick leave to workers, but he's offered support and plenty of praise to Democratic mayors and governors who have been carrying out these ideas.

"Inevitably, Obama will be a lame duck, but the precise moment is somewhat defined on his own skill and boldness at seizing unforeseen issues, such as the Confederate flag issue," says Scott McLean, an analyst with the Quinnipiac University Poll. "History suggests that Obama will be forced into a lame duck role only after it becomes clear in both parties who the likely nominees will be, in the summer of 2016."

All presidents go through the same cycle, says Eshbaugh-Soha, where they end up having less leverage in Congress but find other ways to get what they want. They simply get better at their jobs over time, he suggests, and still have a couple of million people working for them to carry out many of their wishes.

It takes a good long while to judge a president and his policies. But don't count on the media to wait or hedge their bets. "So-so appraisals don't make for good tweets," Pitney says.

[Also by Alan Greenblatt: The changing role of political outliers]

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