Obama’s Air Traffic Controller Moment?

In less than a year and half, President Obama has governed through a roller coaster of both Presidential experiences and Presidential approval.  As we have often mentioned, he entered the Presidency with one of the highest approval ratings of any incoming President.  This was based on incredibly high approval from his base, but also very strong support from the independents, who embraced his “change” mantra after tiring of Republican leadership for eight years.  Over the past year and a half, Obama’s approval ratings have tumbled dramatically and his healthcare bill is being viewed in similar fashion.


A recent poll from Rasmussen highlighted current thoughts on the healthcare bill.  Specifically, 54% of those polled favor a repeal of the healthcare bill.  In addition, 50% now believe passage of the healthcare was bad for the country.  Obviously, these numbers aren’t incredibly positive for this bill, or for President Obama’s approval as it relates to his healthcare initiative.


Unlike President Obama, President Reagan was hardly given a mandate when he was elected.  At the convention in 1980, Reagan was very close to striking a deal with the moderate ex-President Gerald Ford to make him Vice President, which would have ceded some power over his agenda to moderate Republicans.  Instead, he selected George H.W. Bush, and was elected to his first term as President with the narrowest of popular vote margins, less than 51% in fact.


The most significant move that President Reagan made in the first year of his Presidency was related to the Air Controllers Strike.  Under law, the nation’s air controllers were not allowed to strike, along with a number of government unions.  Rather than negotiate with the union, as most thought he would do, President Reagan announced from the White Rose Garden that if the air traffic controllers “do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”


Despite the threat of serious political backlash, President Reagan fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers and broke the union.  While the nation’s air traffic control system would take years to recover, President Reagan had made his point and solidified his agenda.  He was on the side of private business and against big labor.  While this move wasn’t politically popular, it was important to President Reagan’s agenda.


The healthcare bill passage has parallels to the air traffic debate.  Despite risk of political back lash and to his approval ratings, both President Reagan and President Obama, pushed forward agenda items that directly reflected their ideologies, and not political appeasement.   On some levels, whether you agree with the politics or not, these decisions by both Presidents may be emblematic of their strong leadership.


In recent weeks, President Obama has made a number of decisions and taken a number of actions that seem to reinforce that he has had his Air Traffic Controller moment and is coming into his own as a political leader.  He hammered on healthcare and was successful in passing it.  He was strong on missile defense with the Russians, and was able to pass a successful arms control pact, even if delayed.   In a recent meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, President Obama continued to press for a halt a construction freeze in east Jerusalem.  Finally, President Obama recently made 15 recess appointments, including the contentions choice of Craig Becker to National Labor Relations Board.


So, what, if anything, will President Obama finding his leadership footing do for his approval and the Democratic party?  As of yet, the results appear decidedly mixed.   As of today, Obama’s approval rating on the Real Clear Politics poll average is 47.6%, which is basically at the lows of his Presidency.   On the Rasmussen Daily Tracking Poll, he has seen a slight positive move.  While those that Strongly Disapprove have held in at 44% over the last few days, which is his lowest reading since being elected, the Strongly Approve is now registering 30%, which is well off the March 9th trough of 22%.


As our Healthcare Sector Head Tom Tobin mentioned in his morning note, the midterm is widely anticipated to be a disaster for the Democrats.  But with some of President Obama’s recent moves, which do represent a leadership of sorts, perhaps consensus had become too bearish on the midterms for the Democrats.


Even if consensus is correct, perhaps it is less relevant for President Obama than many pundits currently believe.   Continuing with the comparison to Ronald Reagan, remember that President Reagan was first elected with just under 51% of the popular vote.  In his first midterm election, the Republicans lost 26 seats.  In his second Presidential election, President Reagan came back two years later and won an astounding 59% of the popular vote.  If this indeed is an Air Traffic Controller Moment for President Obama, perhaps we shouldn’t write him off just yet.


Daryl Jones

Managing Director


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