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6 reasons Obama can't seem to catch a break

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jobs report showed robust hiring, but evidence of economic recovery isn't helping Obama
  • Julian Zelizer: President remains at low job approval rating
  • He says many presidents fall prey to second-term blues as voters grow tired
  • Partisanship and Obamacare controversy have hurt the President, Zelizer says

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The White House received bad news and good news last week. New polling data indicated that President Barack Obama might be more unpopular than ever before. According to a survey by The Washington Post and ABC News, the President's approval rating has fallen to 41%, down from an already meager 46% earlier in 2014.

No matter what Obama does these days, he can't seem to catch a break. Even with a flurry of good news about the booming enrollment numbers for the Affordable Care Act and solid evidence that the economy is finally in a period of recovery, with Friday's employment report showing robust job growth in March and a lower than expected unemployment rate -- and even though American troops are largely out of any major military conflict -- a large portion of the public still doesn't seem to like this President.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Why can't he gain more traction with the electorate? There are six factors:

1. Second-term blues: Part of the problem has nothing to do with Obama but rather the ongoing challenge that second-term presidents face. The fact is that winning re-election does not often produce great feelings among voters.

After the initial bounce from the re-election victory, most second-term presidents find themselves in trouble with the electorate and Congress. As is usually the case, the opposition party has a stronger foothold in Congress by this time. By the middle of a second term, the public grows tired of a president, and his record provides more fodder for American voters to be unhappy about. Over the course of a presidency, our nation's leader inevitably makes big compromises, as Obama has done with the National Security Agency and deportation, that anger the base of his party.

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According to Gallup Poll, the only postwar presidents who had approval ratings that were better in their second term than their first were Reagan and Clinton. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and George W. Bush saw their ratings slip. And Reagan, whose ratings finally boomed as a result of the historic diplomatic breakthrough with the Soviet Union in 1987, had actually struggled through most of his second term (with his ratings falling under 50%) as many of his domestic policies were unpopular and the Iran-Contra investigation dragged down his reputation.

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2. Polarized electorate: The challenge that Obama faces is also a product of our deeply polarized electorate. With more voters having settled in the Republican or Democratic camp, winning long-term support from a majority of the country is harder to achieve.

Elections have been extremely close in recent decades, with one candidate winning based on a small handful of swing states. There are no more 1936 or 1964 or 1984 elections, where the winning candidate wins by a massive landslide. Instead, presidents are re-elected by narrower margins with huge swaths of the electorate entrenched in their opposition to the incumbent. That opposition only grows fiercer as the second term unfolds and the excitement of the election fades.

3. The conservative media complex: Conservatives have been enormously successful in building a sophisticated network of media institutions since the 1970s. During the time of the conservative revolution in American politics, the right paid close attention to building an infrastructure on radio, television and the Internet through which to promote their ideas and counteract, what they saw, as a liberal bias in the mainstream media.

The result has been that even though Obama retained control of the White House, conservatives have their own bully pulpit through which to communicate their opposition and analyze news in a way that is unfavorable to Democrats. The President confronts a constant barrage of unfavorable news, literally, regardless of what he does or does not do.

4. Policy success brings controversy: Obama is also a victim of his own success. The fact is that during his first year the President was able to get a lot done. When Democrats controlled Congress, the administration was able to enact sweeping legislation -- a national health care program, an economic stimulus bill and financial regulation.

Success in politics often creates more enemies. The bolder the innovation the fiercer the opposition can become, as more Americans become unhappy or threatened by the change. President Lyndon Johnson, now receiving praise on the 50th anniversary of his civil rights bill, paid the price for his Great Society, starting with the midterm elections of 1966 as more of the electorate threw their support to Republicans and conservative Democrats who said that Johnson was spending too much and that his social programs were causing chaos in the cities.

5. The new normal in the economy: The nature of the economy makes it difficult for Obama to gain traction even when economic indicators are moving in the right direction. The structural problems facing the modern economy, with many middle-class jobs having gone to other countries or disappeared altogether, mean that economic recovery often revolves around low-pay and insecure work that doesn't leave Americans feeling better.

Economic recovery is not what it used to be. The U.S. economy, according to the latest gross domestic product report, grew at a meager .1% annual rate between January and March. Beneath the good economic news there are problems. A sizable number of Americans, for instance, have dropped out of the workforce. Many of the jobs that have been popping up are not very good. Even with Friday's positive jobs report, the sluggish recovery and the new normal with high rates of underemployment mean many Americans are not celebrating Obama as they did in the late 1990s when Clinton was able to enjoy the rewards of booming economic growth. The Washington Post-ABC poll found that a mere 28% felt the economy was improving.

6. Poor messaging: One of the main areas of criticism that Obama has faced comes from his unwillingness to promote and sell his policies in face of a mobilized and determined opposition. Very often, when opponents have called his programs off center and deemed them a failure, Obama has not done much to respond.

When Republicans called his market-based health care reform "socialized medicine," the President did not do much to respond and develop a different narrative. When Republicans charge that the economic stimulus was a total failure, Obama didn't come back with a systematic response to show that this was not the case.

The result was that many voters who might otherwise be more sympathetic to the President's accomplishments have bought into the picture that was painted by the GOP. Even many Americans who remain in Obama's camp are less enthused about his leadership after listening to the barrage of criticism about his decisions.

Other factors are at work as well. There are some Americans who unfortunately are not comfortable with an African-American President. Others feel he has not performed well in the realm of foreign policy, seeing Russia's aggressive moves as evidence that the United States does not have a sound road map for dealing with threats overseas.

Conditions won't likely improve for the administration. Although some kind of breakthrough might help the President improve his numbers -- as Reagan enjoyed when the Iran-Contra scandal was replaced by the diplomatic breakthrough with the Soviet Union over an arms agreement -- probably the next few years won't give Obama much of a boost in the polls.

In the short term, Democrats will pay the cost for this in the midterm elections, giving Republicans even more of a base of power to fuel the flames of discontent with the White House.

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