Listening to two briefings -- one by a Democratic pollster who had just conducted a survey for a group favoring health care reform, the other by a Republican pollster more skeptical of the reform plans -- I felt as if I were hearing a pair of reports by the National Transportation Safety Board on the same plane crash. But in sorting through the problems facing President Obama and congressional Democrats, focusing too narrowly on their disastrous handling of health care would be a mistake.
Obama and Capitol Hill leaders don't need to worry too much about their modest drop in support from Democratic voters or the predictable drop on the Republican side. But top Democrats should be very frightened about the sharp drop in support among independents, because it could ultimately threaten their party's hold on the House and shrink their majority in the Senate.
Independent voters -- fired up by the war in Iraq and Republican scandals -- gave Democrats control of both chambers of Congress in 2006. Two years later, independents upset with President Bush and eager to give his party another kick expanded the Democratic majorities on the Hill. Late in the campaign, the economic downturn, together with an influx of young people and minorities enthusiastic about Obama, created a wave that left the GOP in ruins.
That was then; this is now. For the seven weeks from mid-April through the first week of June, Obama's weekly Gallup Poll approval rating among independents ran in the 60-to-70 percent range. But in four of the past five weeks, it has been only in the mid-to-high 40s. Meanwhile, Democrats and liberals seem lethargic even though Republicans and conservatives are spitting nails and can't wait to vote.
What's going on? While political analysts were fixated on last fall's campaign and on Obama's victory, inauguration, and first 100 days in office, two other dynamics were developing. First, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression scared many voters, making them worry about their future and that of their children and grandchildren. And the federal government's failure to prevent that calamity fundamentally undermined the public's already low confidence in government's ability to solve problems. Washington's unprecedented levels of intervention -- at the end of Bush's presidency and the start of Obama's -- into the private sector further unnerved the skittish public. People didn't mind that the head of General Motors got fired. What frightened folks was that it was the federal government doing the firing.
Many conservatives predictably fear -- and some downright oppose -- any expansion of government. But late last year many moderates and independents who were already frightened about the economy began to fret that Washington was taking irreversible actions that would drive mountainous deficits higher. They worried that government was taking on far more than it could competently handle and far more than the country could afford. Against this backdrop, Obama's agenda fanned fears that government was expanding too far, too fast. Before long, his strategy of letting Congress take the lead in formulating legislative proposals and thus prodding lawmakers to take ownership in their outcome caused his poll numbers on "strength" and "leadership" to plummet.
Clearly, the Obama administration was mindful that in the Clinton era Democratic majorities in Congress spurned the White House's fully formed proposals. But in trying to avoid a repetition of President Clinton's mistakes, Obama opened the door to charges that he was outsourcing domestic policy to Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Even in the best of times, Congress is unpopular. And now voters see Obama as having sent suggestions rather than proposals to the Hill, staking his future and reputation on a body that they hold in low regard. (On foreign-policy matters, where Congress plays a small role, Obama's job-approval ratings remain quite good. It's on the domestic side that his numbers are dismal.)
With 14 months to go before the 2010 midterm election, something could happen to improve the outlook for Democrats. However, wave elections, more often than not, start just like this: The president's ratings plummet; his party loses its advantage on the generic congressional ballot test; the intensity of opposition-party voters skyrockets; his own party's voters become complacent or even depressed; and independent voters move lopsidedly away. These were the early-warning signs of past wave elections. Seeing them now should terrify Democrats.
This article appears in the September 5, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.