Obama's approval is drooping. But it's the GOP that should worry.

Ferocious Republican attacks on the president are so single-minded and hyperbolic that the party is only hurting itself

President Obama
(Image credit: (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images))

The rollout of ObamaCare — the signature legislative achievement of the Obama presidency — has been a sputtering embarrassment. Republicans have pulled out all the stops in an effort to destroy the Affordable Care Act, but in the end, it was Democrats who did the damage. The horrible website has gotten the most play, but that's actually the least of it. A few lines of code here, some additional servers there, and the site will probably be up and running in a few weeks.

The more serious problems haven't gotten nearly as much media attention because they're more complex, harder to explain, and thus lost in the weeds of public discourse. Cuts to Medicare are being delayed until after the 2014 midterm elections. The administration is also delaying caps on out-of-pocket insurance costs for a year as well. It is also delaying enforcement of eligibility requirements for the law's health insurance subsidies — opting to rely on the honor system for the time being instead. John Boehner is right when he calls it a "train wreck."

Some Republicans, giddy with excitement, think they've now got Obama right where they want him. I'm not so sure. GOP cackling over the Affordable Care Act reminds me of every Road Runner cartoon. Each time the smirking Wile E. Coyote thinks he has the elusive Road Runner trapped, he looks down and realizes, too late, that he's run out of cliff and is about to go down, hard:

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As bad as the administration's Keystone Kops bumbling over ObamaCare has been, it doesn't obscure this fact: In Washington's political race to the bottom, Republicans still lead the way. They're still trying to take down a guy who isn't running for re-election, a guy who is going back to Chicago (or Hawaii, if he's smart) in 39 months. Thus their singular focus on this president — which in some cases transcends mere ideological opposition and rises to the level of deep, visceral hatred — is politically shortsighted. It simply isn't working.

The president has generally drifted lower in the polls since winning re-election. Averaging all recent polls together, Real Clear Politics puts his current approval at 44.9 percent, and disapproval at 50.9 percent. This is kind of a Goldilocks number: not great, not lousy, but somewhere in the middle (though closer to lousy). What's instructive is to compare his 44.9 percent with other presidents at the same stage — 58 months — of their administrations (Gallup data):

  • Harry Truman (January 1950): 45 percent
  • Dwight Eisenhower (October 1957): 58 percent
  • Lyndon Johnson (September 1968): 35 percent
  • Richard Nixon (October 1973): 30 percent
  • Ronald Reagan (October 1985): 63 percent
  • Bill Clinton (October 1997): 59 percent
  • George W. Bush (October 2005): 42 percent

Obama is far lower than Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton at this stage of their presidencies (all enjoyed booming economies and an absence of war), but far higher than Johnson and Nixon, who were dragged down by Vietnam and Watergate, respectively.

Why is Obama gradually slipping? Those who can't stand him have a knee-jerk response: He's an incompetent, out-of-touch buffoon. But history offers a more nuanced reason. At this stage in their presidencies, all but two of the above men were also fading. The two that weren't — Reagan and Clinton — would soon fall as well, as scandals rocked their administrations to the core. That presidents tend to slip in their second terms suggests simply this: We tire of them as we look ahead to the next election and someone new. That Obama's approval has actually inched up about 1.5 points in the last two weeks (per the Real Clear Politics average) suggests a floor to just how low he can go — barring some dramatic and negative development.

But as Obama has slowly drifted lower (again, most presidents do in their second terms), Republicans have fallen off that cliff.

As recent ABC News-Washington Post polling shows, four key groups which were fairly split a year ago — women, seniors, independents and white college grads — have now shifted decisively away from the GOP. More than 60 percent of all four groups now view the Republican Party unfavorably. There is even talk (wishful thinking in my view) that the GOP's control of the House may be in jeopardy next year. As Rick Perry might say: Oops.

This is what too many Republicans in 2013 seem to forget. While some citizens can be won over by tapping into fear and anger — the Tea Party playbook — more, it seems, can be pushed away with relentless negativity. Perhaps Republicans can stop appealing to voters' fears and start appealing to their hopes and dreams? But what Republican in Washington is doing this today? Instead, the stoking of fear is the coin of the realm for these politicians, and there is an insidious element of McCarthyism to it — there are traitors in the government!

The last Republican president who truly appealed to the hopes and dreams of Americans was Ronald Reagan. It was the honor of a lifetime for me to once meet Mr. Reagan, a man I deeply admired, but in the ensuing decades what has happened? His Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush — decent, honorable men who fought their opponents but didn't demonize them — has lost five of the last six popular votes in presidential elections. An entire generation's worth of opportunities to govern, squandered. The growing narrow-mindedness, negativity, and fear-mongering just doesn't work anymore. Do they really think now that wringing their hands in glee over a crappy website is going to turn their long-term fortunes around? Republicans today ask: Where is the next Ronald Reagan? That's not the question. The question is: Where is Reagan's Republican Party?

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