A whopping 91% of Republican insiders declared 2013 a poor one for the President and 47% of Democrats concurred with that view.
As Barack Obama prepares for his State of the Union Address on January 28, his prospects for 2014 appear brighter than they were in 2013, according to political insiders in both parties. But a majority of Democrats and Republicans believe the President is likely to have just a “mediocre” year in 2014.
Those were some of the key findings of a YouGov elite opinion survey of 100 Democratic and 117 Republican Party activists and operatives, including media consultants, pollsters, lobbyists and interest group leaders, conducted January 3-8.
When asked, “On balance, what kind of year do you expect Obama to have in 2014?” 58% of the Republican insiders and 51% of the Democrats surveyed said they thought the President would have a mediocre year. Another 42% of Democrats bullishly predicted a “good” year for Obama while 39% of the Republicans anticipated a “poor” year ahead for the President.
That isn’t a great forecast, but it is notably better than how insiders in both parties judged how last year went for Obama: a whopping 91% of the Republican insiders declared 2013 a poor one for the President and 47% of the Democrats concurred with that view.
Democrats who expect Obama will have a good year generally think that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act will become more smooth; that an improving economy will lift the President’s sagging approval ratings, and that Congressional Republicans will be forced to compromise more or face retribution from voters in the November mid-term elections.
Republicans who foresee a bad year for Obama tend to have almost the opposite view of the policy and political dynamics in 2014: They believe that Obamacare will continue to struggle, that the economy won’t be strong enough to prop up the administration, and that the President is incapable—for reasons of either ideology or ability—of cutting deals with Republicans in Congress.
But what may be more instructive is to look at the comments of these experienced politicos who anticipate that Obama will have a mediocre year, particularly the views of Democrats who are ostensibly his allies. And the candid observations of several of these Democrats are decidedly mixed with several questioning his capacity to lead.
“Fails to learn from his mistakes, is not particularly a strong advocate for anything, gives a good speech but does little follow-up,” declared one Democratic insider. Obama “has little fondness for being with people, i.e. Congress.”
Another Democrat echoed: “He doesn't have the relationships in either body [of Congress] to get things done. I recognize the Republicans have deliberately blocked his every move but if [he] had personal relationships it would [have] worked.”
“I doubt very seriously we can expect a warming of relations between the White House and Congress, unless the polling changes and suggests that obstructionism is a recipe for Republican losses,” said one Democrat. “The White House seems disinclined to change its problematic approach to congressional relations, although the elevation of Katie Fallon and the return of John Podesta are hopeful signs it could.”
Other Democrats were almost scathing in their opinions of the President. “He is not shining as a strong, inspirational leader, which is what the country desperately needs. The nation gets the sense that all things being equal, he'd rather be golfing.”
“Even a stronger-than expected economic recovery will not erase doubts about his ability to preside, let alone lead the country,” predicted another Democratic insider.
And lame duck status is always a problem for second-term presidencies. “[The] President has little political capital left,” asserted one Democrat. “ACA locked in a narrative that the President is a nice guy but in over his head. His policy agenda remains unfocused. Economic recovery won't be strong enough to boost his numbers. More people discuss Hillary Clinton’s possible  campaign than President Obama.”
Many Republicans who anticipate a mediocre year Obama shared many of these views, but a slightly more charitable.
“I expect him to crawl out of the basement in public opinion, but only to partially recover from performance and trust issues,” said one GOP insider.
And a handful of Republicans suspect that if could rebound a bit by forging some agreements on Capitol Hill. “I think he will learn that Americans will respond better to a somewhat functional Washington so he will try to work with House more,” predicted one Republican.
“If he plays small ball and works with Congress to move a few issues he can salvage his waning popularity,” said another. “Won't make him a star, but also won't make him a villain.”
Even if the President can’t find common ground with Congressional Republicans, some GOP operatives suspect that Obama can regain some of his political mojo because he is still an adroit campaigner.
“2013 was poor because all that matters is how it ended - which was very badly,” said one Republican operative. “In 2014 we're likely to see increased focus on the midterm elections and a stabilization of Obamacare fallout. If Obama can successfully shift to more politically advantageous issues like income inequality he can move on from his last two months.”
Another GOP operative put it less charitably: “It will be a campaign year, which fits his highly partisan style.”
-- James A. Barnes
James A. Barnes is a veteran Washington journalist who created the National Journal Political Insiders Poll and conducted elite surveys for CNN during the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest. The YouGov Political Insiders Survey is comprised of interviews with leading players in political and policy campaigns in Washington D.C. and in state capitals around the country.
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