The year's new buzzword is "reset," as in, "The United States needs to hit the reset button in its relations with Russia." The term is also relevant when discussing domestic politics: The 2010 midterms are likely to be very different from the back-to-back elections that featured hurricane-force winds, waves, and tides in the faces of Republicans and at the backs of Democrats.
Will equally strong winds, waves, and tides flow in the opposite direction -- hurting Democrats and benefiting Republicans? It's far too soon to know. Since World War II, though, the party holding the White House has lost an average of 16 House seats and a fraction of one Senate seat during the first midterm election of a presidency.
Today, 49 House Democrats are serving in districts carried last year by Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Just 34 House Republicans are in districts won by Barack Obama, a 15-seat difference pointing to how the Democrats could easily lose an average number of seats in the first midterm contests of Obama's presidency.
Similarly, the fact that Republicans must defend at least five open Senate seats to the Democrats' two (if the current count holds), combined with the vulnerability of more Republican incumbents than Democratic ones, suggests that the idea of the Democrats' achieving a wash -- or even a slight gain -- in next year's Senate elections is quite plausible.
That outcome, of course, is before we factor in the unknowables of next year's political climate. Washington Democrats have been noticeably nervous for the past two weeks. They seem to have a sinking feeling that things aren't going well, that Republicans have begun to land telling blows on climate change and health care.
A lot of lawmakers got an earful from constituents over the July Fourth congressional recess. There is no hard evidence at this point that the gales that helped Democrats so much in 2008 and 2006 have reversed direction, but Democratic momentum has slowed significantly. The Gallup tracking poll of July 11-13 shows Obama's job-approval rating up in recent days -- at 60 percent, with 32 percent disapproval -- although it has been mostly in the high 50s this month. In the Pollster.com trend estimate based on all major national polls, Obama's job approval is 55.1 percent, with 38.9 percent disapproval. The RealClearPolitics.com average shows 57.6 percent approval, 36 percent disapproval.
These are not bad results, but they are the numbers of mere mortals. They are not the godlike scores that Obama enjoyed earlier and that often appear during presidential honeymoons.
What's more telling is that although Democrats still hold an advantage over Republicans in terms of voters' party identification, their edge has narrowed some in Gallup polling. When those initially calling themselves independents were pushed to say which party they lean toward, the Democratic lead dropped from 13 points (52 percent to 39 percent) in the first quarter to 9 points (49 percent to 40 percent) in the second quarter. When independents were left out, the lead fell from 7 points (35 percent to 28 percent) to 6 (34 percent to 28 percent). Again, nothing alarming for Democrats, but these are not the kinds of numbers they saw leading into the last two elections. Although few recent polls have included the generic congressional ballot test, the general pattern shows a lead for Democrats that is smaller than what we've had over the past four years.
The bottom line: Democratic momentum is slowing but not yet reversing. What Republicans should hope for, and Democrats should fear, is that we are nearing an inflection point, when the directions change. That hasn't happened yet.
The key indicator to watch for the rest of the summer is public confidence in Obama. Whether looking back at the economic stimulus package and the budget, or forward to the pending climate-change and health care reform proposals, voters see legislation that is massive, important, and complex. Few will understand the intricacies of any, let alone all, of these measures, which will be defined, positively or negatively, by the media and public dialogue. Whichever party does the better job of messaging will win.
Do voters have confidence in Obama's wisdom, vision, and ability to get things done? His personal ratings are higher than his job-performance scores, suggesting that the people think his motives are good but that they have questions about the specifics of his proposals and whether he can achieve his goals.
This article appears in the July 18, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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