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How Obama Can Salvage His Last 28 Months

September 10, 2014

Two new polls this week are the latest indications that Barack Obama's presidency is in perilous shape. The Sept. 7 Washington Post/ABC survey found 52% feel it has been more of a failure while only 42% believe it has been more of a success. A record 55% say Mr. Obama is not a strong leader, only 38% believe he has done more to unite the country while 55% say he has done more to divide it.

The Sept. 7 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll reported that more people—67%—believe the country is on the wrong track than at this point in any midterm election in two decades. Mr. Obama's 40% approval is lower than Bill Clinton's in 1994 and his own in 2010, when Democrats suffered massive midterm losses.

Absent a crisis that causes the nation to rally around him, Mr. Obama will never again see approval numbers like those in his first year in office or even the months after his re-election. He must now consider how to prevent a further slide.

There are many reasons the president is in this predicament with no easy way out. For starters, the president should stop questioning the motives of his political opposition as he did last Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." He charged that Republicans lack "common sense" and are "fixated simply on dismantling government or making sure that we don't get anything done around here." This damages his ability to work with Republicans, who control the House now and may have the Senate next year.

The more political Mr. Obama acts, the less successful he will be. Stepping back from hyperpartisanship is the only way to foster a climate in which Washington functions during his last two-and-a-quarter years.

The president must stop diminishing his own credibility. From ObamaCare to the administration's role in Benghazi to the IRS scandal, he has misled Americans. Mr. Obama is now being battered for denying that he was referring to the Islamic State last winter when he called them the "JV." Of course he was. When he asserts otherwise, Americans wonder how stupid he thinks they are.

The president must also accept the role history has thrust upon him, that of wartime leader. This will require a strategy to defeat the Islamic State and regularly remind Americans why it matters to our interests while reporting progress and setbacks. It will require more troops on the ground to guide airstrikes, advise Iraqi troops, collect and analyze intelligence and conduct targeted missions against the Islamic State leadership. It will also require a U.S. stay-behind force in Afghanistan, not Mr. Obama's "zero option."

Then there's the problem he calls "optics." From golfing shortly after condemning the beheading of an American journalist to diverting Air Force One so he can take Stonehenge off his bucket list, Mr. Obama often appears detached, disengaged and even disinterested in his job and in his relations with foreign leaders and Congress. He should show up in the Oval Office earlier and more often, golf and fundraise less, and give building relationships and digging into the tasks at hand everything he's got for his last 28 months. There's time to recreate after he leaves office.

The president should shake up his White House staff. He is largely surrounded by sycophants who encourage his worst instincts and bury his better ones. He should start by showing the door to senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, his chief enabler.

Mr. Obama would be well served by altering his goals and methods. After his party was defeated in 1994, Bill Clinton moved to the center, signed welfare reform and restrained spending. After his party was defeated in 2006, President George W. Bush switched defense secretaries and his Iraq strategy. Mr. Obama must change for a better trajectory during his last months in office.

Finally, the president should discard his threats of unconstitutional executive action. When he circumvents Congress, Mr. Obama inflames tensions, makes it easier to undo his policies and could leave the presidency weaker by his overreach.

Mr. Obama's difficulties are somewhat caused by circumstances, but mostly the result of his actions. His bad poll numbers were long in coming and may be impossible to reverse. Yet he can stabilize his situation. This will require him to acknowledge mistakes, shift in light of facts, and build bridges to political opponents and foreign allies. The question is whether he has the strength of character, energy, suppleness of mind, introspection and humility to make these necessary changes.

A version of this article appeared September 11, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline How Obama Can Salvage His Last 28 Months and online at WSJ.com.

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