Last week, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found President Obama tying his record low approval rating of 41 percent. NBC’s Chuck Todd, referring to another poll result showing that 54 percent of Americans “no longer feel that he is able to lead the country and get the job done,” told the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “Essentially the public is saying, ‘Your presidency is over.’”
Similarly, political analyst Charlie Cook, citing Gallup survey data, wrote in National Journal, “There was a point when voters hit the mute button and stopped listening to George H.W. Bush and then to his son George W. Bush. We now seem to have reached that point with Obama.”
But one morsel from the NBC/WSJ poll didn’t fit that narrative: 67 percent of respondents are in favor of the president’s newly announced regulations “to set strict carbon dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants.” And when the pollsters re-asked the question, after presenting supporting and opposing arguments, including charges of “fewer jobs” and “higher prices,” approval held with a healthy 53 percent to 39 percent margin.
That’s a hell of a lot of support for a major presidential initiative from an electorate supposedly no longer listening to the president.
What did Obama do right?
Adhering to a favorite maxim of U.S. presidents of both parties that it’s remarkable how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit, Obama tapped EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to announce the plan and stump for it in media interviews. By keeping a relatively low-profile, Obama tempered the media’s tendency to polarize everything while dampening conservative backlash, a strategy that previously helped shepherd the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law and the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy on gays and lesbians.
Additionally, the Obama administration avoided a united corporate front against the plan by reaching out to industries about to be regulated. While the U.S Chamber of Commerce chose to oppose the plan before it was released, the power plant industry’s main lobby refused to reinforce the attack. Instead, it released a positive statement expressing appreciation for the “range of compliance options” offered by the EPA.
The statement was short of an outright endorsement, leaving room for further negotiation. Days later, McCarthy began that negotiation, meeting with and winning praise from utility executives for “listening to the concerns that we had” and being “willing to have that dialogue.” With the utility industry signaling détente, Republicans couldn’t validate conservatives’ sky-is-falling claims with the voices of those most directly impacted by the proposed regulations.
While Obama was exhibiting leadership with finesse, Republicans decided to run into a wall. Instead of training their fire on the climate proposal in the days following the June 2 release, they obsessed over freed prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl. Whatever one’s opinion of the terms of the prisoner swap with the Taliban, it’s a done deal—and the climate rule is not. Republicans had a moment to redirect the climate debate for the duration of Obama’s presidency away from the losing effort of denying the science and toward the more fertile ground of jobs and prices. Myopically, they used that moment to chase the shiny object of the 24-hour news cycle.
Obama may not have been leading on climate in the conventional sense: preaching from the bully pulpit and rallying the public to pressure Washington to act. But prominent political scientists will tell you that’s not how presidential leadership usually works. As George Washington University professor John Sides explained to Slate, “The idea that presidents accomplish more if they give the right speech is magical thinking.”
Yet, the president has bucked the trend of history and successfully used the bully pulpit to advance another major goal: raising the minimum wage. Anticipating obstinacy from House Republicans, he told the states during his January 2014 State of the Union address, “You don’t have to wait for Congress to act.” He followed up that call with several outside-the-Beltway stump speeches urging states to raise their minimum wage above the federal standard.
The stumping is working. So far this year, eight states have raised their minimums and later this week Massachusetts will make it nine. Others may follow suit as more than 30 state legislatures have been compelled to consider minimum wage measures, and activists in eight states are pursuing November referendums. As with climate, this is not the kind of impact a president makes if the public has “stopped listening.”
But since bully pulpit tactics are not the norm of presidential leadership, it’s not all that important if the public doesn’t “tune in” to hear the president anymore. The test of a president’s leadership is whether he is in-tune enough with the public, and deft enough with the levers of power, to accomplish what is feasible.
If I were a Republican, I would not be savoring Obama’s 41 percent approval rating and presuming his presidency was done. I would be worried about my party’s 29 percent approval rating, its 15 percent level of support among Latinos and Obama’s plans to take executive action on immigration reform if House Republicans don’t act by July 31. If you think Obama isn’t able to lead on immigration, after what he has done on climate and minimum wage, you haven’t been paying attention.
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