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Behind the slide in Obama's poll numbers

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
June 18, 2013 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama's numbers have taken a hit, according to a new poll
  • Gloria Borger says the president must wonder how he got into this predicament
  • Obama decided to largely back Bush's surveillance policies, she says
  • Borger: Obama should lead the debate over security rather than just listen to it

(CNN) -- Since President Obama seems to be a reflective soul, he must be reflecting on the irony of his latest predicament: as the man who came into office promising to change everything and who instead seems to have let much of what he promised to fix only get worse.

First, the good news: Slowly but surely, the economy is coming back. And that's no small feat, given where it was in 2009.

Then, everything else: The constitutional scholar, civil libertarian and antiwar activist can't seem to wake up each day without some basic challenge to his political ecology. The confirmed presence of chemical weapons in Syria now makes some sort of escalation there inevitable, just as the war in Afghanistan winds down. (More military support for the rebels? No-fly zone?)

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

The newbie senator who railed against President George W. Bush's "warrantless wiretaps" is now defending his own version of government for-your-own-safety intrusion. ("No one is listening to your telephone calls.") He gives a speech defending drone strikes; he answers questions about the Justice Department's dragnet surveillance of media outlets in its leak investigations.

He might be forgiven for asking himself James Stockdale's infamous vice presidential debate questions: Who am I? And what am I doing here?

CNN poll: Obama numbers plunge into generation gap

Now all he has to do is answer them.

The president has -- rightly -- called for a public debate about the proper balance between national security and privacy. But the debate can't happen without him. In fact, he needs to lead it. That's what presidents are supposed to do when the country is having a national conversation. It's part of the job description.

Obama's declining approval rating

In the National Security Agency controversy, we've heard from the leaker, the director of the NSA, the director of national intelligence, the members of the intelligence committees. We heard a bit from the president, who seems to be saying, in effect, that "I'm glad you guys are talking about this, because we are going to have to make some tough choices as a society."

Here's what we know: The president entered office skeptical of the very programs he is now defending. But after vetting them and adding some additional protections, he now thinks they are important, even integral, to our self-defense. All of which makes sense to me personally. But it's hard to categorically decide something (especially when it affects you) without some more information. And if you're asking people to decide that Big Brother-ism in some form is OK -- and to trust that you are doing the right thing -- you've got to give them something to work with.

Remember when Bush said "I hope the American people trust me"? It turned out they didn't.

Obama bristles at suggestion he's shifted on snooping

In fact, the public's view of the Obama administration's handling of civil liberties is beginning to eerily resemble what the public thought about Bush: Forty-three percent in a new CNN/ORC poll say the administration has gone too far in restricting some civil liberties in order to fight terrorism. In 2006, 39% thought Bush had gone too far. That's the same Bush that then-Sen. Obama excoriated for the "warrantless wiretaps" in 2006.

But the worst news for the president is that he seems, at least right now, to be losing the benefit-of-the-doubt factor he has enjoyed because people think he's an honest guy who tries to do the right thing. The latest CNN/ORC polling shows that while 49% of Americans consider the president to be "honest and trustworthy," that's down 9 points -- in one month. And his approval rating has fallen 8 points to just 45%.

The unkindest drop, fueling the entire downward trend, comes from Obama's stalwarts, younger voters. A huge 17-point decline among the under-30 set has got to be some sort of wake-up call.

Now, I know this president doesn't like some parts of his job. He doesn't much like schmoozing members of Congress, despite his recent share-a-meal plan with assorted Capitol Hill types. He doesn't like the LBJ-style strong-arming, either. He doesn't much like the messy lawmaking process in which personal relationships can often mean the difference between getting what you want and getting nothing at all. And he doesn't ever like to be pushed. Ever. No-drama Obama, remember?

But he does like speeches. He likes writing them, redrafting them, pondering them. He likes giving them, too -- because he's good at it.

So speak. The American people need some quality time here. An interview or two, sure. Declassify some information about thwarted terror attacks that can be shared without compromising intelligence.

Let Americans in on the real secret they're puzzling: how this president has been affected by what he has seen from the Oval Office. Some may buy it; some may not. But letting us in on this secret is just part of the job.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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