President Obama’s approval rating is at or near its nadir. Beltway centrists fault Obama and the Democrats for embracing “economic populism.” The Department of Health and Human Services just had to issue even more Obamacare extensions. The Democratic-controlled Senate is so dysfunctional that it’s pulling all-nighters, and 2013 is on track to hold the record for Congress’ least-productive year. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, hurling an Olympian thunderbolt from atop the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list, accuses Obama of “a passivity that verges on absenteeism.”
Sounds pretty bad. But the truth is, things are actually looking up for the president and his party.
Yes, Obama’s approval rating is low, but the good news is that it’s stopped dropping after seven months of decline. And let’s keep that drop in context: Obama’s lowest-ever approval rating still remains higher than that for every president since Gerald Ford.
The economic populism that the chattering class can’t abide consists of Obama talking about the three-decade growth in income inequality, a social catastrophe largely ignored by every other president since it began in 1979—no, it hasn’t (as Krauthammer claims) “always been with us.” The president’s proposed solution is a politically popular increase in the minimum wage—an increase, incidentally, that’s lower than the one Obama promised in the 2008 election (which he won). Among the many virtues of a minimum-wage increase is that it would increase the budget deficit by precisely zero.
The Obamacare extensions are something that will make the Affordable Care Act work better, which is why Republicans are squawking about them. Overall, the trajectory is favorable, with more than double the signups in November than occurred in October. I signed up my family on Dec. 8 on the Washington, D.C. exchange. The website was a bit balky, but no worse than I’m used to whenever I cash in frequent flyer miles (on a website for a company that’s been around since 1930). I chose the second-most expensive plan available and still cut my monthly health insurance bill by $600. People are starting to complain about the high deductibles, but from Obama’s point of view, criticisms of Obamacare must feel like a giant step past questioning of whether it should exist. (To the extent the complainers are Republicans, they’re being hypocritical.)
That leaves Congress. The Senate’s all-nighters are precisely the outcome Democrats wished for. With the filibuster abolished for executive-branch and judicial nominees (except the Supreme Court), obstruction is no longer achievable by remote control; it now requires being present and putting your Senate colleagues – and yourself – through such hell that Republicans will have to think twice before doing it in the future. They’re doing it now because they’re mad about the filibuster rule change, but if they obstruct too much they will invite further rules changes, such as eliminating the filibuster altogether. It’s not good that this will be Congress’s least-productive year, but at least that prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid into action. Despite the all-nighters, the Senate is anything but gridlocked; it confirmed nine presidential nominations in three days.
Now let’s talk about what hasn’t happened. Republicans aren’t threatening to shut down the government or to let the government default on its obligations; their previous experience with this tactic inflicted sufficient political pain that they won’t likely attempt it again for another decade or two. A budget deal that reduces the harmful effects of the budget sequester has cleared the House. Speaker John Boehner is now openly contemptuous of the far-right fringe that previously bossed him around. Hard-right members of Congress are whining that they’re “under attack.”
In all, a good week for Obama and the Democrats, even before one remembers that the Volcker Rule emerged relatively unscathed from a Wall Street lobbying frenzy. They have plenty of headaches ahead of them, but events seem mainly to be going the Democrats’ way. If that’s “absenteeism,” the strategy’s working.