Last week, Michael Grunwald came out with a piece in Politico full of interesting reporting that purports to explain "the inside story of how a great communicator lost the narrative."
The idea that Barack Obama has suffered from some kind of major communication failure is felt deeply inside the White House, including by the president himself. Last week, Obama told Andrew Ross Sorkin that "if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate."
Which is strange, because it doesn't really seem to me that there's any failure here that needs to be explained or to have its inside story told. It's typical for an incumbent president's party to lose seats in the midterm elections. The economy was in dismal shape in the fall of 2010, and while the administration was doing what it could to improve the economy, they had also clearly spent a lot of time and energy on a longtime liberal hobbyhorse — giving health insurance to the uninsured — that had only a limited relevance to most people. No communications strategy was going to change that.
But today the economy is in better shape. Obama's approval rating is back above water and above-average for a president at this point in his term. And he's far more popular than other leading political figures from Paul Ryan to Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton. Obama is also very popular internationally.
All of which is to say he's accomplished about what you would expect a solid communications effort to accomplish. Especially because, per that Sorkin article, Obama's self-assessment is actually reasonably harsh when he's not in defensive mood:
"I can probably tick off three or four common-sense things we could have done where we’d be growing a percentage or two faster each year," Obama said. "We could have brought down the unemployment rate lower, faster. We could have been lifting wages even faster than we did. And those things keep me up at night sometimes."
If I wrote a column arguing that Obama ought to spend his nights haunted by errors of political and policy judgment that have cost the economy hundreds of billions of dollars in lost growth, I think the White House press shop would think I was being a little unfair. But that's what Obama is saying!
Nonetheless, he's pretty well-liked and popular by the standards of polarized age. To an extent, however, that polarization is simply a bummer. Obama came into the White House, accomplished a large share of the things he set out to do, and left the country in better shape economically than he found it. In an early time, that might have been good enough to leave office overwhelmingly popular. These days, though, short of a 9/11-scale event that short circuits partisan politics, the simple fact that Obama stands on one side and millions of people stand on another puts a relatively shallow ceiling on how much acclaim he or anyone else can plausibly expect.