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Obama's Decline in Popularity: What Caused It?

As President Obama contemplates his first year in office, he might be forgiven for recalling the words of Queen Elizabeth II, looking back on a year rife with royal scandal: an annus horribilus, she called it, and you don't need six years of Latin to translate her sentiments.

Mr. Obama has suffered the steepest decline in job approval of any first year president since they started keeping such data: in most surveys, he is barely at, or under fifty per cent. His health-care plan, the signature effort of his first year in office, has grown steadily less popular and its survival, as one Congressional Democrat put it, "Hangs by a thread."

It may, in fact, be doomed on the precise one-year anniversary of his Inaugural, if Massachusetts voters send a Republican to the U.S. Senate today to fill the seat held for nearly half a century, by Edward Kennedy, the patron saint of liberal health care. Special Report: Obama's First Year

The coming year does not appear to hold out hope for better times: the jobless rate is likely to remain at or above ten percent, and the real unemployment rate -- which includes those who've given up looking and those working part-time who want full time jobs -- is at 17 percent. And historically, no president in modern times has significantly improved his approval numbers in his second year -- a gloomy atmosphere in which to move into midterm elections.

What's happened: "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan," John Kennedy famously said -- but political trouble also has a thousand diagnosticians, each offering (sometimes contradictory) notions.

One of the most commonly heard refrains -- one that makes a lot of sense -- is the broad appeal that was Mr. Obama's political strength became a governing liability. As he himself once said, he was a vessel into which people poured their own political desires. He was the tribune of progressivism, the man to redeem the promise of Robert Kennedy. No, he was the post-conflict president, the candidate who promised to "turn the page" on the wearisome conflicts of the past.

Because so many people expected Mr. Obama to do so many different, conflicting things, he could not possibly hold those who voted for him together. More important, he did not come to office with a strong sense of where he was going.

To take the most obvious contrast, when President Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981, it was of a piece with who he was: a staunch conservative, suspicious of the power of public employee labor unions, determined to strike back hard on an organizing explicitly violating federal law. Like him or not, no one could say, "wait a minute! This is not the guy we thought he was!"

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
When Obama put in power a number of figures who had played significant roles in the financial meltdown, and when Wall Street emerged from the disaster apparently richer than ever, Mr. Obama's supporters on the Left were dismayed. When he presided, however necessarily, over stimulus programs that will add trillions to the national debt, his less liberal backers saw it as a lurch to the Left. And while he campaigned on health care, the twists and turns of the details -- an individual mandate he'd opposed on the stump, a tax on high-cost health care plans that could the middle-class -- wound up producing far more doubt than hope.

I'd like to suggest other explanations for the president's difficulties. One we'll call, for want of a better term, is "The Lack Of Fear Factor."

Put bluntly, who's afraid of Barack Obama? Who in the political arena frets over what might happen if he or she crosses the president? After the 2008 election, much was written about Mr. Obama's massive social network -- the millions or people tied to him through Facebook, Twitter, e-mail -- ready to be mobilized on behalf of his agenda.

If there is any evidence that this army, now under the "Organizing for America" umbrella, has had any impact on any wavering Democrat, it's harder to find than those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Congressional Democrats can threaten to scuttle health care if their parochial concerns aren't met; Congressional Republicans can refuse any accommodation with the president; and there is no political price to be paid.

Ronald Reagan used to say of the California legislature, and then of the Congress, "if they can't see the light, maybe they'll feel the heat." But there seems to be no heat that can move a wary member of Congress to Mr. Obama's side in his key battles. (We'll have a test of this hypothesis when and if the president tries to move his environmental agenda through the Congress this year; labor and industry alike may well push back on new regulations; who, if anyone, will be pushing for Mr. Obama's ideas?)

Then there's the false interpretation given to the electoral results of 2008. We heard much about the big Democratic majorities in the House, and about the prospects of a "filibuster proof" Senate once Al Franken won the Minnesota seat. But that notion confuses the United States with a parliamentary system of government like Britain's, where virtually every member of the majority is expected to vote for the prime minister's program.

Here, members of the House, and especially members of the Senate, are perfectly prepared to defy their president -- at least, Democrats are. (Recall that in 1993, with big majorities in both houses, President Clinton got his budget through by one vote in each chamber). And now that virtually every key piece of legislation needs 60 votes to pass the Senate, Mr. Obama had no margin of error from the get-go.

Finally, there's this almost "un-American" idea: that some of that Mr. Obama faced was simply not susceptible to any good answer. Given that the financial meltdown was moving at warp speed when he took office, Mr. Obama's options were….what?

Everyone, including every decision-maker in the Bush Administration, said that without a huge influx of money, hundreds of billions of dollars worth, the financial system would collapse. That decision meant that a huge federal deficit was inevitable. Given that, apparently inevitable outpouring, nothing that followed would be without real pain: turn off the tap and you risk another recession, maybe a depression. Raise taxes and economic activity slows; print money and the ugly specter of inflation looms.

To put it in stark terms, it just may be that barnyard full of chickens, some forty years' worth, are coming home to roost, bringing with them grim times.

As the 2008 election was nearing its end, I suggested that by Inauguration Day, the victor might be demanding a recount. That was a joke. On this anniversary, maybe not so much.

More Coverage of Obama's First Year in Office:

Grade Obama's First Year in Office
A Year After Obama, Republicans Take Stock
Poll: Obama Ends First Year with 50% Approval Rating
Photos: Obama's First Year

(John P. Filo/CBS)
Jeff Greenfield is CBS News' senior political correspondent.