Every week seems to bring a new poll with gloomy news for President Obama, as well as for congressional Democrats who are desperately trying to hold on to control of the House and starting to break a sweat about their majority in the Senate. Things are bad enough that even White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs conceded on NBC's Meet the Press,"There's no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control."
A new poll is filtering through Washington with many of the same grisly findings for Democrats as other recent surveys. But it also suggests a message that shows some potential for the party to ameliorate the growing wave benefiting Republicans. The June 19-22 survey of 1,100 likely voters was conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group, the firm that also serves as President Obama's principal pollster, for Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank.
When asked "Generally speaking, do you think the steps taken by the president and Congress on the economy over the past 18 months have helped the national economy and made it stronger," or have "hurt the national economy and made it weaker," 48 percent answered "made it weaker," while 43 percent chose "stronger." When asked which approach to strengthening the economy they preferred, 54 percent of respondents chose "cutting taxes for business to help jump-start private-sector job creation and economic growth." Just 32 percent said "making new government investments to help jump-start private-sector job creation and economic growth," essentially favoring a more Republican-oriented message by 22 points.
When asked whether they would prefer a candidate who "will stick with President Barack Obama" economic policies," or "one who will start from scratch with new ideas to shrink government, cut taxes, and grow the economy," 64 percent preferred starting from scratch, compared with just 30 percent who would stick with the Obama policies. Populists won't particularly care for the finding that 55 percent agreed with the statement "American companies are the backbone of the U.S. economy and we need to help them grow, whether they are large or small." Just 37 percent said, "Large companies have too much power, hurt the middle class, and government needs to keep them in check."
Suffice it to say that these aren't the numbers that a party holding the presidency and both chambers of Congress wants to see going into a midterm election, which is usually a referendum on the party in power.
Things got more interesting when 43 percent said that the phrase "supports a failed economic agenda" better described Democrats; 34 percent said it described Republicans. However, when people were asked whether they would prefer a candidate for office who "will stick with President Barack Obama's economic policies" or "one who will return to President George W. Bush's economic policies," the result was a 15-point advantage for the Obama approach, 49 percent to 34 percent.
In other questions, just 27 percent rated President Bush as having done an "excellent" or "good" job of "ensuring fairness in the tax code." Respondents similarly gave him a bad review on "helping the middle class," with just 28 percent saying he was excellent or good on the issue. Finally, just 14 percent said that Bush had done an excellent or good job of both "regulating Wall Street and the oil companies," and "managing the federal budget deficit."
Although some pollsters don't care for the "excellent/good" versus "fair/poor" questions because fair is neither positive nor negative, these are still ugly numbers for President Bush. However, when asked "Which is closer to your view of the economic agenda that Republicans in Congress would support if they win a majority of seats in Congress," just 25 percent said that the GOP would back "a return to George W. Bush's economic policies." A whopping 65 percent thought that the GOP would have "a new economic agenda that is different from George W. Bush's policies."
The bottom line is that even though many voters express disdain for Bush's economic policies, they do not attach those policies to a possible new GOP majority. If this midterm election is a referendum on Obama and the Democrats in Congress, the party is going to lose a lot of seats, very likely the House, and possibly the Senate. If the Democrats can frame this election as Bush versus Obama, even to a moderate degree, Democrats might be able to keep their House losses down. They don't have a great shot at succeeding, but they don't seem to have many promising alternatives.
This article appears in the July 17, 2010, edition of National Journal.