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Look To Obama

The National Political Terrain Now Hinges In Large Part On The New President's Performance

My 22-year-old daughter Becky reminded me last year of a conversation we apparently had seven or eight years ago, in which she asked my wife Lucy and I whether we thought a woman or a black would be elected president first.

While, sadly, I don't recall the conversation, apparently Lucy and I both responded that a woman would probably be elected first, and certainly in our lifetime. However, we weren't sure whether a black would or not, but that surely it would happen in Becky's lifetime. She reminded us of the conversation after Barack Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination, when he was ahead in the general election polls but not by an insurmountable lead.


Whether one is a Democrat or Republican, supported Obama or John McCain, it's hard not to have a sense of awe and appreciate the enormous symbolic importance and historic nature of the inauguration of Obama as the 44th president. The fact that just about 18 months ago, most of us thought there was very little chance of this happening any time soon, let alone this year, makes it all the more remarkable.

Journalists and other commentators are being challenged today, attempting to capture the magnitude and significance of this event without sounding trite or sycophantic. But after we acknowledge the significance and our awe for the historic moment, we will need to move on.

A few years ago in evangelical circles the bumper sticker mantra was, "What Would Jesus Do?"


For so many questions these days, the most appropriate response will center on Obama. Can Democrats hold on to the Virginia governorship this November? The answer is, "How is Obama doing?" The answer is the same to the question of whether Democrats can hold on to the 54 congressional seats they have picked up over the last 30 months.

Are you going to see a disproportionate number of retirements from either party in the House or Senate? Can Democrats pick up another three or four Senate seats from the GOP?

The answers to all of these questions will hinge on how Obama is doing as president. His performance and his popularity will determine the tilt in the terrain and the strength of the players on each side. It affects retirements, recruiting, fundraising. To be perfectly honest, it's almost easier to say what it doesn't affect than what it does.

Three yardsticks are useful in determining how he is doing and how his performance is affecting the political terrain and dynamics for this fall's off-year and next-year's midterm elections. The first is obviously his job approval rating.


The current trend estimate of Obama's job-approval rating, which is really just measuring the transition at this point, hovers over 70 percent.

Clearly these are hyper-inflated numbers and no president can sustain approval ratings like that, but whether he can keep his approval numbers at least in the mid-50s is important. The economy's terrible shape will obviously put downward pressure on his numbers, but Obama will be advantaged, at least for the next year, by the fact that President Bush currently has ownership of the recession.

But people will have to see some bottoming out and stabilization by early next year and some real economic improvement by the end of the summer of 2010 if Obama hopes to keep their confidence in him.

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The second yardstick is the generic congressional ballot test on national polls, in which voters are asked which party they would rather see in control of Congress or which party's candidate for Congress they intend to support.

Last year, the Democratic advantage ranged from a low of around 4 or 5 points to a high of between 12 and 15; the average usually ran around 8 or 9 points.

Those are leads that are hard to sustain for long periods of time, particularly for a party that is holding on to the White House as well as both chambers.

If you see the Democratic advantage drop below that range, it would be a sign that disillusionment toward Democrats has begun to set in.

The generic ballot test is not an accurate predictor of how many seats a party will gain or lose, but it is a good indicator of which party is likely to gain seats.

It is also fairly accurate at predicting whether gains will be small, medium or large. The generic ballot test is a fairly sensitive indicator, so it's important to watch averages of several different polls rather than overreact to one, particularly if it shows something different from most recent ones. However, this is an important diagnostic indicator to watch over the next year.

The third yardstick is party identification. Four years ago, the two parties were essentially at parity. Last year, the Democratic advantage ballooned, and the question is whether they can sustain an advantage.

Going back to parity would mean erosion, rather than settling. If there is widespread disillusionment with the party, it would be reflected in party ID, though it is more of a lagging indicator than the generic ballot test.

In the end, how Obama and the enlarged Democratic majorities will be judged in November 2010 will be based on whether the economy has begun to improve, whether they are seen as having tried their best to address this recession and whether they have remained true to the supporters that put them into office. Then we will have the answers to all these questions.

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