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Legacy Content / OFF TO THE RACES

GOP, Dems Do Some Advanced Calculus

Recession And Recovery Offer Some Opportunities To Get Out From Obama's Shadow

June 9, 2009

With Congress in the most critical legislative period of this session -- getting down to the short straws on health care reform and a cap-and-trade climate change bill -- President Obama's standing with voters looms large.

For Democrats in Congress, it is an issue of determining to what extent they want to fall in line or how willing they are to buck the administration, either from the right or the left. Most agree that Democrats are all in the same boat: that party fortunes in the November 2010 midterm elections will be based largely on how the public sees Obama and his Democratic team; whether they agree with the direction and governing agenda; whether they are seen as having helped or hurt the economy.

The White House has not effectively connected the dots with voters on the message that its actions, while extreme, have been essential.

 

Do individual Democrats want to be seen as totally supportive? Or might they want a wee bit of distance to point to when addressing the Lions Club back home?

For Republicans, the calculus is obviously different. There is little in the Obama agenda for conservatives to love. Indeed, for many this must seem a world turned upside down. In a half a year, congressional Republicans have gone from almost lockstep support of the Bush administration to almost equal unanimity opposing all but the least controversial matters.

But for Republicans in swing states or districts, selectively playing ball with this popular president on an issue here or there can certainly burnish one's standing with independent voters, though that risks angering the base or even inviting a conservative primary opponent.

Even for the Republicans who feel sure they want to oppose much of the Obama agenda, the question then is whether they want to simply register their opposition or to stop it in its tracks. The latter course is more risky and more popular with the base, but more problematic with swing voters.

Whether the issue is health care, climate change or anything else important, it is one thing to say, "I disagree." But is there a danger in stopping it altogether and potentially antagonizing a public that is supportive of the concepts, if not the details, of addressing health care and climate change?

There is little question that this president is popular. The latest Gallup polling shows his approval rating through Sunday at 62 percent, with a 32 percent disapproval rating.

His Gallup approval rating has only dipped as low as 59 percent three times since he took office, in each case just for one three-night moving average. Each three-night sampling is just over 1,000 adults with a 3-point error margin.

A Gallup report released Monday based on May 29-31 interviewing shows his personal favorability at 67 percent, with 32 percent viewing him unfavorably, and an overall job approval rating of 61 percent.

Gallup also examined the president's approval rating in seven areas. His highest approval rating in these areas was for foreign affairs, with a 59 percent approval and 32 percent disapproval. On the economy, 55 percent approved and 42 percent disapproved. His handling of both terrorism and the Middle East came in at 55 percent approval and 37 percent disapproval. His handling of North Korea was next, with 47 percent approval and 33 percent disapproval. Then came two trouble spots: the federal budget deficit, with 46 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval, and controlling government spending, with 45 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval.

For Obama, the challenge is to convince voters that the recent spate of deficit spending is essential to jump-start the economy out of a deep recession and that he really had no other choice.

On this point, one thing that might have hurt Obama's case is that for obvious reasons, not wanting to cause a public panic, many key officials didn't quite explain to the public at the time how close the economy came to an economic Chernobyl last fall.

In an extraordinary interview rebroadcast Sunday night on CBS' "60 Minutes," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke came pretty close. Many insiders say that in September, the world economy was within hours of collapsing, prompting Bernanke and the Bush administration to take extraordinary actions, which the Fed and the Obama administration have had to continue to keep the economy from going over the edge.

The White House has not effectively connected the dots with voters on the message that its actions, while extreme, have been essential.

For Democrats, the calculus is trying to figure out whether Obama's spending and deficit problems with voters will be fixed, or if this is something they need to create some distance on, understanding that opposing him and putting his agenda at risk could have even greater negative implications for them.

Ultimately, they have to decide whether they are better off sharing a boat with him or taking their chances alone.

For Republicans, these numbers should suggest a path out of the political doghouse. They blew the GOP's long-standing credibility on fiscal issues, and now have an opportunity to reclaim it, steering the focus away from the social and cultural issues that contributed to their estrangement from moderate, college-educated suburban voters.

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