Here are two questions to ponder over the table in the Rayburn Cafeteria. The first is whether, over the next couple of months, President Obama's job approval numbers are tethered to successes and failures, or are they more conceptual -- such that two-thirds of Americans are either optimistic or hopeful about his presidency and are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The second question is whether the strategies employed by congressional Republicans will help or further isolate them from swing voters.
Swing voters know Obama reached out for Republican support and was rebuffed by the GOP. For most voters who aren't Rush Limbaugh listeners, Obama won that exchange.
The gap between the 53 percent of the vote that Obama received on Nov. 4 and his job approval ratings in the mid-60s is hardly unusual. Honeymoons are the norm, not the exception, and it still speaks to a reservoir of goodwill that he is enjoying.
But looking forward, there is a tug of war between the hope of those who support him or fervently want him to succeed and the gravitational pull downward that a deep and worsening recession inevitably causes.
The tiebreaker events are more likely to be related to how he, his administration and Democrats in Congress perform. Are their policies seen as sound and their performances as competent, or not?
With a two-thirds approval rating, Obama is very likely at or near the top of his trading range, and his ratings are likely to go down. The key question is whether it will be gradual, a settling down to more mortal levels, or will it be more precipitous, suggesting a shorter honeymoon than Democrats hoped?
Presidents and their administrations are made up of mortals and thus are going to make mistakes. Do voters see these as normal shakedown cruise mistakes or as more of a pattern of ineptitude and faulty initiatives? That's the first, $64,000, question.
The other big-money question is whether Republicans are helping or hurting their own cause. While last year's election results and the GOP's gradual slipping over the last few years in party identification numbers certainly established the degree of their problems last year, current polling suggests that things have not gotten any better.
A CNN/Opinion Research national poll of 1,245 adults conducted Jan. 12-15, with a 3-point error margin, asked, "Do you think the country would be better off if the Republicans controlled Congress, or if the Democrats controlled Congress?"
It found a Democratic preference of 56-31 percent. A more recent poll of 800 registered voters conducted Jan. 21-24 by Financial Dynamics for the Hotline and Diageo -- with a 3.5-point error margin -- asked whether voters would prefer a Democrat or Republican for Congress in 2010, and found a similar Democratic advantage, 46-22 percent.
While the 111th Congress will be only a month old this week, these numbers suggest that the Republican Party base has contracted or narrowed to the point of extreme isolation, raising questions of the wisdom of their "don't give an inch" strategy.
While liberal friends suggest a futility of reaching out to GOP members of Congress for support -- pointing to the zero GOP votes that the economic stimulus package received in the House -- arguably Obama won the perception fight.
Swing voters know he reached out for Republican support and was rebuffed by the GOP. For most voters who aren't Rush Limbaugh listeners, Obama won that exchange.
This week, the Senate is debating its stimulus package, and it looks increasingly likely that the legislation will be changed fairly substantially to address concerns that it was too porked up in the House. It's not uncommon to witness Democratic senators score points at the expense of their House colleagues, and, let's face it, with some justification. Clearly, some Democrats saw the measure as a cross between Christmas and Mardi Gras: a vehicle for getting long-denied goodies, not the emergency legislative measure it was intended to be.
A decent bet might be that we will begin to see Obama utilize his own variation on triangulation, setting himself and his administration as equidistant between Republicans on the far right and Democrats on the far left. This would allow him to score points at the expense of each side's more extreme elements by inviting lawmakers to join him in the middle. With few congressional Republicans left from swing states and districts, that center ground will necessarily be made up of more Democrats than Republicans, but he will work hard to ensure that there are just enough from the GOP side to show compromise.
There is no doubt congressional leaders of both parties will mock this scenario, and the Obama White House will be scoring points at their expense.
On the one side, Democratic leaders will moan and groan but generally go along with it. On the other side, Republicans will be forced to choose between too often being irrelevant to the process on the one hand and not standing for anything on the other.
It's a lousy situation to be in, but for now there is no way out. Republicans on their own have little credibility today, and their success has become contingent upon Obama's failure, something they have little control over.
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