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What Can Obama Do Improve His Approval Rating?

GUY RAZ, Host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

BARACK OBAMA: So the time for action is now. No more games, no more gridlock, no more division or delay. It's time for the people you sent to Washington to put country before party, to stop worrying so much about their jobs and start worrying more about yours.

RAZ: President Barack Obama from his weekly address, calling on Congress to pass his jobs bill. James Fallows of The Atlantic joins me now as he does most Saturdays. Jim, it's great to have you back.

JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you very much, Guy.

RAZ: Jim, I picked up the paper today and I imagine you saw the same thing. There's a new book out that reveals pretty damaging information about the Obama White House, a new poll that shows the president's approval ratings are lower than ever, and then a prominent Democrat who is saying the president should panic and fire everybody. Are we looking at a low point?

FALLOWS: Certainly, it's a low so far. What it bodes for next year's election, I think it is still too early to be sure of. It's worth remembering that it was less than five months ago that the president ordered Osama bin Laden killed, so a lot can change. But I think the omens are fairly sobering for the administration.

It's interesting, if you think of what goes wrong for a president, it's usually war or scandal, which so far the administration has largely avoided, or the economy, which really brought down the first President Bush in 1992, or some kind of narrative of whether the president really is in control of his job. And I would argue for President Obama, it's almost all number three, the economy, leading just now to some sense of number four, whether he has the right tools to master the job of the presidency.

RAZ: James Carville, of course, who famously helped Bill Clinton get elected in 1992, had this to say about President Obama this week.


JAMES CARVILLE: Some people have got to go, and it may be that they've got to go unjustly or maybe they're doing the best they can under the circumstances, that doesn't matter. You've got to give people a signal out there that something's not working and you're trying something else.

RAZ: OK, that was James Carville speaking on CNN. He wrote that the president should panic and fire all of his advisers. Is this just, you know, sort of Washington inside the beltway talk, or is there something to that?

FALLOWS: Well, I think certainly the need to send a different signal is one that everybody in the administration would recognize, but I think that the very recommendation that Carville was saying, that the president should panic and do something different, shows how difficult this calculation is.

The president I once worked for, Jimmy Carter, was in a real situation of malaise in 1979. He gave a famous speech about malaise, which actually was popular until he panicked and asked most of the members of his Cabinet to resign, and that was one more step toward defeat for him in 1980.

So the challenge for the president is showing that he takes seriously how the economy is just not changing as fast as he hoped and said it would without seeming to panic because his argument all the way along has been a steady long-term vision is what's required. And if he's suddenly throwing aside the people who have gotten him to this point, in a way, it undercuts the main argument he's making.

RAZ: What's actually kind of interesting, Jim, is that when it comes to things like foreign policy or his handling of terrorism, President Obama's poll numbers are higher, and you would never have thought of that when he was candidate Obama.

FALLOWS: Indeed. And I think I can't easily remember an administration that has gone this long without something really serious going wrong in international affairs. You can argue that the Israel-Palestinian negotiations have been the biggest failure so far for the administration, but he is managing the two wars he inherited in a at least politically acceptable way. Relationships with the big countries of China, Russia, the European partners, even Iran are not moving to the crisis point you might have expected when he came to office.

So for somebody whose main argument coming in was about the need to change the internal tone of politics and the economy, it's striking that that's been his main problem, and his main successes so far have been international.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can find his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.