In No Mood for Trophies

U.S. President Barack Obama listens as Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski (not pictured) speaks during a ceremony marking "Freedom Day" anniversary in Warsaw's Castle Square June 4, 2014. Obama's visit to Poland coincides with the "Freedom Day" anniversary, marking the holding of the country's first partially-free elections 25 years ago, which led to the end of communist rule and the victory of the Solidarity trade union. 
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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 18, 2014, 4 p.m.

With the midterm elec­tions less than six months away, it’s a good time to take stock of things and even ven­ture a few as­sump­tions. But first, we need to ac­know­ledge that when we talk about pub­lic at­ti­tudes, we are talk­ing about hu­man be­ha­vi­or and un­ex­pec­ted na­tion­al events, which can cause close races to tip one way or the oth­er, or to make less com­pet­it­ive con­tests even more so.

Hav­ing said that, it ap­pears that the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, na­tion­al eco­nomy, and is­sue agenda are un­likely to change sig­ni­fic­antly be­fore Novem­ber. At this point, this elec­tion is what it is, and it will be fought on ter­rain pretty much like what we see today.

(Kacper Pem­pel/Re­u­ters)Be­cause midterm elec­tions are more a ref­er­en­dum on the White House oc­cu­pant than any­thing else, Pres­id­ent Obama’s 44 per­cent ap­prov­al/51 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al rat­ings in the Gal­lup Poll for both April and May are deeply troub­ling for Demo­crats. Obama’s Gal­lup ap­prov­al num­bers have ris­en 3 points since last fall, when they hit 41 per­cent with the dis­astrous launch of Health­Care.gov. That im­prove­ment now seems to have leveled off, however, and his rat­ings are still in a bad place. They are com­par­able to his num­bers just be­fore the 2010 elec­tion, when Demo­crats lost 63 House and six Sen­ate seats.

You could say that if Obama were a stock, he would have a very nar­row trad­ing range: His ap­prov­al num­bers are rarely bet­ter than 45 or 46 per­cent; equally rarely are these num­bers worse than 41 or 40 per­cent. His dis­ap­prov­al num­bers, mean­while, are in the 50s. With Gal­lup’s poll­sters con­duct­ing more than 15,000 in­ter­views each month, and with the firm us­ing con­sist­ent meth­od­o­logy, it’s a good poll to watch for trend data.

Six of the crit­ic­al Demo­crat­ic-held Sen­ate seats up this year are in states that Mitt Rom­ney car­ried by 14 points or more in 2012. It’s safe to as­sume that Obama’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ings in these places are sub­stan­tially lower than his na­tion­al num­bers.

If a midterm elec­tion is a ref­er­en­dum on any­thing oth­er than the pres­id­ent, it is on the eco­nomy or, more ac­cur­ately, the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of the eco­nomy. The eco­nomy is ex­pec­ted to bounce back this quarter from its pain­ful, weath­er-in­duced hic­cup in the first quarter, when gross do­mest­ic product con­trac­ted by 1 per­cent.

The just-re­leased Blue Chip Eco­nom­ic In­dic­at­ors sur­vey of 54 top eco­nom­ists fore­casts that the eco­nomy will grow at a 3.7 per­cent rate for the second quarter, then settle in at 3.1 per­cent in the third and fourth quar­ters. Un­em­ploy­ment, which was 6.7 per­cent in the first quarter, is ex­pec­ted to gradu­ally de­cline to 6.4 per­cent in the second, 6.3 per­cent in the third, and 6.1 per­cent in the fourth.

You could say that if Obama were a stock, he would have a very nar­row trad­ing range.

Al­though the un­em­ploy­ment ar­row is tech­nic­ally mov­ing in the right dir­ec­tion, any job­less rate of 6 per­cent or high­er isn’t good. In­deed, re­cent polling showed that a strong ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve we re­main in a re­ces­sion, even though the re­ces­sion that began in Decem­ber 2007 was de­clared of­fi­cially over in June 2009. While vari­ous con­sumer-con­fid­ence rat­ings are show­ing num­bers that are among the best since the on­set of the re­ces­sion in 2007, the read­ings are still at very low levels, and Amer­ic­ans are still highly anxious about the cur­rent state and fu­ture of the eco­nomy. This “three-steps-for­ward, two-steps-back” re­cov­ery means that few voters are in the mood to hand Obama or the Demo­crats trophies or rib­bons for it.

In terms of the is­sue agenda, at­ti­tudes to­ward the Af­ford­able Care Act have not sig­ni­fic­antly changed and are un­likely to between now and Novem­ber. Obama­care over­shad­ows any oth­er spe­cif­ic is­sue; no im­prove­ment on the pub­lic’s at­ti­tudes to­ward it is an­oth­er tough blow to the party.

Still an­oth­er prob­lem that seems to be grow­ing for Demo­crats is the gen­er­al per­cep­tion — wheth­er someone agrees or dis­agrees with this ad­min­is­tra­tion on policy — that Obama of­fi­cials lack com­pet­ence. That on simple mat­ters of ex­e­cu­tion — be it hand­ling the eco­nomy, the launch of Health­Care.gov, the gen­er­al ad­min­is­tra­tion of the ACA, or prob­lems with the Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion — they seem like the gang that can’t shoot straight. The steady erosion of con­fid­ence in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion fur­ther lim­its Demo­crats’ abil­ity to bounce back from neg­at­ive events.

There was a point when voters hit the mute but­ton and stopped listen­ing to George H.W. Bush and then to his son George W. Bush. We now seem to have reached that point with Obama. Voters have thrown up their hands and lost hope that things will get any bet­ter.

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