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The divided states of Obama

WASHINGTON

The headline “Poll: Obama Worst President Since World War II” was both provocative and misleading. The Quinnipiac survey did, indeed, place President Obama at the top of the worst since FDR. But this was largely a measure of partisan concentration. Republicans were united in their unfavorable historical judgment of Obama. Democrats divided their votes.

But the poll identified serious problems for the president. Fifty-four percent of respondents said the Obama administration is “not competent running the government.” A majority believe the president does not have “strong leadership qualities.” Obama is solidifying a perception that he is out of his depth.

And the failings of the Obama era are contributing to a deeper crisis for liberalism. Public confidence that government generally does the right thing is near an all-time low.

Obama is left with a job approval rating — in the low to mid-40s — that is about the same as when his party lost 63 House seats during the 2010 midterm elections. On the stump, his strategy is a ferocious peevishness. Republicans “don’t do anything except block me and call me names” — an accusation in the best rhetorical tradition of schoolyards everywhere. His promised use of executive power seems more like a confession of powerlessness in the normal political realms of persuasion and legislation.

On policy issues, Obama has few places to turn. Public impressions of the economy seem set. ObamaCare is enduringly controversial. The IRS and Veterans Affairs scandals continue to unfold. Foreign policy hardly offers a refuge — as years of disengagement in the Middle East now require engagement on dramatically less favorable terms.

Obama therefore turns to the two issues that Democrats keep in their back pocket: immigration and contraception. In the long run, the political analysis that informs this strategy is correct. The American electorate is becoming more demographically diverse and more culturally liberal on some issues. When it comes to Hispanic voters, younger voters and single voters, Republicans can seem out of touch (because they mostly are).

So the midterm contest sets up: “Out of his depth” vs. “Out of touch.”

But Obama’s surefire issues offer complications. The appearance of chaos at the border may lead the Obama administration to seek procedural reforms that expedite the deportation of children. The only successful immigration legislation this session may be a border-control measure.

And the “war on women” conducted by the Supreme Court turns out to be narrow exception to a 2011 Health and Human Services regulation. The court ordered the Obama administration, when it substantially burdens a religious belief, to pursue the “least restrictive means” of achieving its goal — which has been the law since Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993.

It is hard to imagine that the president’s use of cultural wedge issues will have much effect in battleground Senate races. But even if it does, a historical reputation will be set.

“I don’t want to pit red America against blue America,” Obama once said. Now he organizes the sorting of America between red and blue. Best president or worst, he has left a nation more divided.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.


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