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Obama risks losing public trust, aura of competence

US President Barack Obama speaks to encourage foreign investment and job-creation at the SelectUSA Investment Summit in Washington, DC, October 31, 2013
US President Barack Obama speaks to encourage foreign investment and job-creation at the SelectUSA Investment Summit in Washington, DC, October 31, 2013.

As his political woes mount, Barack Obama risks squandering two assets no president can do without -- public trust and the aura of a man firmly in charge.

Flaps over the implementation of his signature health law and National Security Agency snooping have done more than dump Obama's approval ratings to new lows.

They call into question the president's governing style and personal candor at a time when his political window to revive a stalled second term agenda is fast closing.

Obama's problems may also squelch a precious chance to capitalize on public disgust at Republicans over the recent government shutdown and debt default debacle.

And the president's tumbling poll ratings will also spook Democrats early in the race to the 2014 mid-term elections.

Obama insists that the health care law is more than just a wonky sign-up website, and that all will be well once technical issues are sorted out.

But some Americans are already finding out that there's more to Obamacare than online forms -- and not to Obama's advantage.

Thousands are getting policy cancellation notices from insurance firms, despite the president's oft repeated promise : "If you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan."

Meanwhile, the revelation that Obama did not know US spy agencies were snooping on the phone of his friend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have offered ammunition to Republicans claiming that Obama is running an aloof "bystander" presidency.

Brookings Institution scholar William Galston said Obama faced two immediate political threats.

US President Barack Obama speaks on healthcare at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 30, 2013
US President Barack Obama speaks on healthcare at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 30, 2013.

"One of which is that the president could appear less than fully candid. The other ... is that he could appear less than fully briefed," said Galston, a former aide to Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

The poorly functioning Obamacare website was a gift to Republicans, warming a narrative, which had never really caught fire, that government -- which Obama sees as a positive force -- was never up to remaking a private US health care industry.

But, while a website can be fixed, the row over Americans losing their policies could linger much longer and Republicans know it.

"This isn't fair. It's not what Americans were promised," Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday.

The White House says Republicans are not telling the full story, arguing that only around five percent of Americans are affected by the cancellations and that many policies are being discontinued because they do not meet the higher standards required by Obamacare.

Americans who lost their insurance will be able to purchase better programs through Obamacare, officials say, though do not discount they may pay more in some cases.

"This has been the latest flurry in the news," Obama said in Boston on Wednesday, "There's been a lot of confusion and misinformation about this."

But in Washington politics, perception is often more important than reality, and the damaging soundbite of Obama saying over and over that Americans can keep their health insurance plans is on a continuous loop on cable news stations.

A new Wall Street Journal/ABC News poll showed Obama's job approval ratings at a new low of 42 percent, and his hitherto resilient personal ratings, which have helped him ride out of trouble before, have also taken a hit.

US President Barack Obama waves after speaking to encourage foreign investment and job-creation at the SelectUSA Investment Summit in Washington, DC, October 31, 2013
US President Barack Obama waves after speaking to encourage foreign investment and job-creation at the SelectUSA Investment Summit in Washington, October 31, 2013

While Obama will not face voters again, such numbers will still worry the White House, as the president seeks to stave off the lame duck status common to all second term presidents.

They may also doom long-shot hopes that Democrats could take back the House of Representatives in 2014 and conjure an Indian summer for Obama's presidency.

As Obama's stern fightback in Boston showed Wednesday, his aides realize they have a serious political problem.

"If there's a perception that he's not on top of his own program, that he's not cognizant of what's going on on major issues, such as surveillance of top world leaders and his healthcare program, that does damage his reputation," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University.

In a presidency torn by economic, political and foreign policy crises, Obama has rarely had time to catch his breath -- and now he is beginning to sound fatigued.

"There is this enormous frustration sometimes," Obama told Democratic supporters on Wednesday, bemoaning more Republican "obstruction and more resistance to getting anything done."

It will be little consolation to Obama but he is not the only politician swamped by public disdain.

Recent polls have revealed the already sour public mood in the United States is deteriorating.

The Republican Party's approval rating hit a new all time low of 22 percent in the Wall Street Journal poll, while 63 percent of voters want to boot out their member of Congress -- another record figure.

Obama is not getting much love from abroad either.

European allies are in uproar over NSA snooping, while friends in the Middle East like Israel and Saudi Arabia are worried about the US diplomatic opening with their enemy, Iran.

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