President Obama’s credibility will be difficult to regain after the failure of his core Obamacare promise and the disastrous roll-out of the health care law rescued the Republicans from a public relations nightmare following the government shutdown, according to one of the nation’s leading political scientists.
Larry Sabato is a professor of political science at the University of Virginia and directs the school’s Center for Politics. He says President Obama lost a lot of ground with the American people by promising them if they liked their health plans and doctors that they could keep them.
“One thing that I think all historians and political scientists look for is the moment, if it occurs, when the credibility gap opens and it’s happened for Obama. It’s not because of the rocky roll-out of Obamacare and not because a website doesn’t work, although it should have,” said Sabato. “It’s because of that oft-repeated statement, which many people bought because the president said it and people said, ‘Well, if he’s got all these advisers, surely they checked.'”
“The fact that a president would say that over and over again creates a credibility problem,” said Sabato, noting similar drops for Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam, Richard Nixon over Watergate, Ronald Reagan over Iran-Contra, George H.W. Bush over taxes and Bill Clinton over denials of in intimate relationship with an intern.
“There are these moments in a presidency when people can focus on whether a president is telling the truth or not. And once you’ve found out that somebody can lie to you over and over again and do it pretty convincingly, you’re a little less inclined to be gullible,” said Sabato, who says the credibility gap is obvious in Obama’s latest polling.
“Right now, depending on the poll, it’s between the upper thirties and the low forties. Obviously that’s not a very good position to be in when you’re the incumbent president and you have more than three years to run in your term. This is going to be a long, long lame duck period,” he said.
In addition to severely damaging the president’s credibility, Sabato says the timing of the fiasco saved congressional Republicans, who were getting the lion’s share of the public’s wrath over the government shutdown. But Sabato says Republicans also need to dodge the bullet again in 2014.
“Obamacare saved the Republicans from a long-term hit. Remember, we’ve got the debt limit coming up again. The question is did Republicans really learn a lesson from that 17-day shutdown because it cost them big. They’re not going to get a second roll-out of Obamacare to rescue them in all likelihood. If they learned their lesson, they’re going to leave that alone during the election year and they’re going to go ahead and raise the debt limit and not shut down the government. People may not like it, but, politically, in an election year, that’s the thing to do if you want to win,” said Sabato.
In assessing the legislative battles from 2013, Sabato says he never thought President Obama’s gun control push would ever gain much traction.
“On the day of Sandy Hook, as sad as we all were and as tragic as that situation was, I tweeted that there wasn’t going to be any gun control legislation because of the alignment in Congress. You always go back to the last election. What did it create?” said Sabato, noting that some deeply Democratic states advanced new gun restrictions but a GOP-led House would never go along with Obama’s agenda.
“I don’t know if Obama thought he was going to get it. I rather suspect he was because presidents are surrounded in this bubble by aides who basically like to give him good news,” said Sabato.
Another issue that got bogged down in 2013 was immigration reform, which passed in the Senate but is being addressed piece by piece in the House. Sabato says those waiting for the lower chamber to approve what the Senate did shouldn’t hold their breath.
“You can forget about comprehensive immigration reform. Piece by piece reform? I mean it’s possible. Both parties agree on certain pieces. The question is will they agree to pass those pieces? Democrats don’t want to let the popular pieces of immigration pass without having a comprehensive reform for all the illegals living in the United States,” said Sabato.
The growing rivalry between the establishment Republicans and the conservative tea party side of the GOP flared up several times this year. Without a specific prescription for resolving the differences, Sabato says they better reconcile before November 2014 and especially before the 2016 campaign.
“The real challenge for Republicans is going to be in 2016, because that’s when the new leader of the Republican Party nominated for president has got to bring the factions together to have a chance of winning,” said Sabato.
So what does Sabato, the chief prognosticator for the Center for Politics Crystal Ball, see happening in 2014? Overall, he says history suggests this will be another rough midterm for Obama.
“These sixth year elections tend to be very unpleasant ones for the incumbent White House administration,” said Sabato.
He expects the House to stay in GOP hands and for Republicans to gain about six seats by his early calculations. Sabato also sees Republicans gaining at least three Senate seats and he believes getting the magic number of six is doable.
“There’s a very real shot. You can see the path to a majority in the Senate for Republicans if they don’t divide and if they don’t nominate candidates who can’t win the general election. These are a lot of ifs and we have to see it play out in the new year,” he said.