“Thank you for making health care reform a priority,” a woman wrote to the president, adding, “If you hadn’t, you probably would have fewer gray hairs (sic) right now.”
Reading from the letter at a White House event this week, President Obama, chuckled: “That’s a good point”. “But her story is reminder that the law was worth a few gray hairs (sic).”
His greying hair tells another story, however — that of a president struggling to rescue not only his signature legislation from a series of crises, but his entire second term. His popularity is closer to that of George W Bush at this stage in the latter’s second term, and not of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, who would have their own problems later.
For the first time in his presidency, a majority of Americans — nearly 52% — say they don’t find him honest and trustworthy, according to a new poll by the Quinnipiac University.
And a poll among Millennials (18 to 29-year-olds), his most ardent supporters, his popularity dropped 11 points from April to 41%, according to the Harvard Institute of Politics. Some lawmakers from his own party, specially those up for re-election in 2014, are reluctant to appear with him at public events, and do what they can to distance themselves. But experts and commentators believe that all is not lost, and that he can still rescue his second term — all he needs to do is fire a high-profile aide or two to show contrition. Others believe the president may have taken a few knocks, but he is safe. “Obama’s legacy may be tarnished, but it is not in final jeopardy,” said Lorenzo Morris of Howard University.
At the heart of the troubled term is his healthcare law, which is known more as ‘Obamacare’ for its association with him than by its official title, the Affordable Care Act. A pet project of Democrats, Obama nailed it early in his honeymoon years of the first term, when his party controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Since then it has been through many more votes, and legal challenges at all levels, squeezing past on occasions, perilously close to being defeated.
But it’s still there, standing.
Disaster rolled out
The law came into effect the night of October 1, as the administration shook itself out of bruising budget battle that shut down the federal government for 16 days. When the site, healthcare.gov — the health insurance marketplace, went online around midnight, West Wing staffers monitoring the website found nothing unusual. Todd Park, Obama’s chief technology officer, stayed back at work that night to watch the website. The traffic, the aides noted a few hours later, was really heavy. And that impressed them, prepared as they were for the worst: typically slow rollout as Americans circled the marketplace, poking it, testing it, but not buying, not yet.
Engineers directly dealing with the system came to a different conclusion, however: there was a problem — the website was not able to handle the traffic.
But there was a bigger problem that they could not deny for long. The website was not ready for launch. Finger-pointing started almost immediately, and health secretary Kathleen Sebelius was the obvious target. She was forced to apologise repeatedly at a congressional hearing.
Obama’s chief of staff Dennis McDonough, a fitness fanatic who sometimes runs to work before daybreak, was next, but he has gotten away so far, with sympathetic write-ups. But it seems clear someone will be fired soon.
Obama has apologised and tweaked the law to make it work.
But the healthcare law is not his only headache.
Comprehensive immigration overhaul was a top priority for President Obama’s second term. So was gun control, after the shocking massacre at the Newtown elementary school.
The senate passed a bill some months ago that cleared the path to citizenship for 11 million illegal, strengthened border security and fixed high-skilled workers’ programme. The bill was drawn by a bipartisan group of eight senators — four from each party, and was passed with bipartisan support, barring a few ultra-conservative Republicans.
But it found no support in the House of Representatives, which preferred a piecemeal approach. Obama complained to a TV interviewer that the senate bill was just “sitting there in the House”.
It was not sitting there, congressional aides said. It was dead on arrival. Obama has now said he was not averse to a piecemeal approach, if that can keep the bill moving.
The failure to push through a gun control bill — even one without any teeth — was specially galling, coming as it did despite countrywide outrage over the Newtown shooting. A very angry president admonished lawmakers then for their failure to vote through a gun control bill saying they had “caved to the pressure” from a powerful gun lobby.
Obama has until the congressional elections next November to fix his second term. He will then go into a lame-duck phase with the start of the search for his successor.