Beset by criticism of the federal health care overhaul and with his public approval rating at an all-time low, President Barack Obama arrived in California on Monday seeking to shift attention to immigration and the economy, issues around which he has traditionally managed to rally fellow Democrats.
In a speech at the Betty Ong Recreation Center in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Obama blamed “the unwillingness of certain Republicans in Congress to catch up with the rest of the country” on immigration.
“It’s long past time to fix our broken immigration system,” he said. “We need to make sure Washington finishes what so many Americans just like you started. We’ve got to finish the job.”
Public confidence in Obama has been dragged down by the administration’s mishandling of the federal health care overhaul, with several national polls putting Obama’s approval ratings at 41 percent or 42 percent in recent days, equaling or surpassing his previous record lows.
Even in heavily Democratic California – and even before criticism forced Obama to apologize for a defective health care website –the president’s public approval rating plummeted 10 percentage points this summer, to 52 percent, according to the Field Poll. The poll was conducted after the disclosure of National Security Agency surveillance programs.
“He’s at the lowest point in his presidency,” said Jaime Regalado, retired executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “He’s taking a drubbing right now. … He’s in California not only to raise funds, but to raise hopes that he’s still fighting the battles.”
Regalado said any hope that House Republicans will bend on immigration is “ludicrous,” but that Obama is wisely raising the issue “to appear that he’s in charge again … that he’s on the advance.”
In addition to his remarks on immigration Monday, Obama is expected to address the economy at an event today in Southern California.
The policy speeches were folded into a West Coast fundraising swing ahead of next year’s midterm elections, with fundraisers in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles for the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The U.S. Senate approved legislation earlier this year that would pay for increased border security and create a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but the measure has stalled in the Republican-controlled House.
Obama may find a sympathetic audience in California. Not only are Democrats supportive of immigration changes, but 15 GOP state lawmakers in September urged Republican representatives to act on the Senate’s immigration bill. The Republican Party has been damaged by its failure to appeal to the state’s growing number of Latino voters, and many Republicans believe federal action on immigration could improve the party’s standing in California.
In the audience Monday was state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, who is among Republicans pressing for action on the immigration bill. Despite his reservations about the health care overhaul, Cannella said, “We’ve been all pushing for immigration for so long now it’d be a shame for this other issue (health care) to cloud out everything else.”
Obama acknowledged in his weekly video address Saturday that “over the past couple of months, most of the political headlines you’ve read have probably been about the government shutdown and the launch of the Affordable Care Act. And I know that many of you have rightly never been more frustrated with Washington.”
He encouraged Americans to “look beyond those headlines” to indicators of an improving economy. Two days later, Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters the president’s West Coast trip is not an effort to distract from controversy over health care but that “the goal of this trip, in addition to raising some money for the Democratic Party, is to highlight the breadth of the president’s domestic agenda.”
Obama offered a brief defense of the health care law Monday. Nearly 80,000 customers in California enrolled in the state exchange from its launch Oct. 1 through Nov. 19.
“So even as we’re getting this darn website up to speed – and it’s getting better – states like California are proving the law works,” Obama said. “People want the financial security of health insurance.”
Obama’s speech was interrupted by a heckler standing on the riser directly behind the president. He called for Obama, by administrative action, to stop deporting undocumented immigrants.
“I need your help!” said the 24-year-old San Francisco State University student, Ju Hong.
Obama told Hong, an undocumented immigrant from South Korea, that if he “could solve all of these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so” but that America is a “nation of laws.”
Leaving the event, Kevin Soriano, an office manager who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, put the chances of an immigration bill passing within the next year at “zero” but said Obama “is doing as much as he can.”
“It’s a long process,” Soriano said.
Obama left the speech for fundraisers at the SFJAZZ Center and the home of Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff. He flew to Los Angeles on Monday night, where he was scheduled to appear at three fundraisers before speaking at an event on the economy at DreamWorks Animation in Glendale. The company’s CEO, Jeffrey Katzenberg, is a major donor to Obama.
Obama’s weakened political condition is reminiscent of difficulties he faced two years ago, when he was sliding in the polls and appeared to be vulnerable in his re-election bid.
At an event in California that year at which Obama promoted his plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, Doug Edwards, a former Google brand manager and Democratic campaign donor, asked Obama in a crowd-pleasing and widely reported exchange, “Would you please raise my taxes?”
Two years later, Edwards said “it hasn’t gone as smoothly as I or most people would have liked.”
In part he attributed Obama’s difficulties to his inability to “wrangle” with Congress, but mostly he blamed the GOP.
“I’ve seen an unprecedented level of personal animosity and obstruction,” Edwards said. “It’s been an absolute refusal to work with him.”
Edwards said the administration “clearly underestimated the challenge of putting the (health care) website together” but that once people become more familiar with the program “it will kind of self-right itself and most people, anyway, will be fairly pleased with it.”
“Personally I’m pretty happy with the way it’s going,” Edwards said. “But again, I live in California, and California’s probably the only state that’s had a fair amount of success in getting people signed up.”
As for Obama’s ability to bounce back politically, Edwards said, “I think it’s possible … but it’s going to take time.”