President Obama, Welcome to Bush’s World

by Stuart Rothenberg June 30, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

In the middle of February, veteran Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg gave some free advice to his party’s Congressional leaders via the New Republic, urging them to take a series of steps to minimize Democratic vulnerabilities (and losses) in the fall elections.

It has been four months since Greenberg’s article, “Disaster Relief: How to Avoid a Repeat of 1994,” appeared, but there is no sign of a Democratic turnaround on the horizon — only more depressing news and pessimistic public opinion data for Democrats.

The news on joblessness and the U.S. economy, combined with growing concerns over the federal deficit, Europe’s financial health (particularly growing debt), the lack of progress of the war in Afghanistan and the damage resulting from the BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, are burying the president and his party in an avalanche of public dissatisfaction.

As former President George W. Bush found out only a few years ago, a never-ending supply of bad news saps a presidency, and a political party, of its strength.

Voters who once felt hopeful and gave the new president the benefit of the doubt instead distrust the White House’s explanations and assume the worst. No number of high-profile speeches will reverse the decline. Only good news will, and it isn’t anywhere to be found.

Greenberg’s first suggestion for Democrats in February was to “quickly pass a version of the Senate health care bill.” That was wise advice because the alternative — getting no bill at all — would have been disastrous for the party.

But the highly regarded strategist’s prediction that passing a bill “will raise presidential and Congressional approval ratings” was overly optimistic.

In mid-February, when Greenberg’s article appeared, Obama’s job ratings stood at 49 percent approve/50 percent disapprove in a CNN poll. A month later, days before Obama signed the health care bill, the president’s poll numbers stood at 46 percent approve/51 percent disapprove, and more recently, a mid-June CNN survey found Obama’s job ratings at 50 percent approve/48 percent disapprove — largely unchanged from February.

Gallup had Obama’s job rating at 51 percent approve/42 percent disapprove in mid-February, 50 percent approve/43 percent disapprove in mid-March and 49 percent approve/44 percent disapprove in mid-June — again, largely unchanged during the period.

And the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, conducted June 17-21, offers a similar picture, with the president’s job rating down to an approval of 45 percent, with more respondents disapproving of his performance for the first time in his presidency.

Congress’ job rating (22 percent approve/73 percent disapprove) is up a bit from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal March survey (17 percent approve/77 percent disapprove), but the institution is still held in very low esteem.

It’s true that support for the health care reform measure has inched up since March (from 36 percent to a still underwhelming 40 percent in the June NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey), but the gain is both misleading and irrelevant if it doesn’t improve the standing of Democratic officeholders.

Gallup’s Lydia Saad, writing on her firm’s June 11-13 poll with USA Today, notes that support for the reform bill fell from 47 percent in March to 45 percent in April but rose to 49 percent in June. She calls the recent uptick “not statistically significant.”

She also notes the increase in support for the measure came primarily from Republicans (up from 10 percent to 17 percent), while support of independents was flat (41 percent approve in April compared with 43 percent support in March) and support among Democrats actually slipped 5 points. Those Republicans, of course, aren’t likely to vote Democratic in the fall.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey’s other poll numbers confirm the growing importance of the federal deficit in voters’ minds, the low opinion that voters hold of both parties and the increased inclination of registered voters to support Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm elections.

The poll also found the overall mood of the public continues to erode, with 29 percent of respondents saying the nation is “generally headed in the right direction” and 62 percent saying “things are off on the wrong track” — about where it was in December 2008, shortly after the presidential election.

Democratic strategists are deluding themselves if they believe that passing a financial reform bill or a small-business measure will change the public’s mood. It won’t. Voters won’t care by the time November rolls around unless their mood brightens.

If bad news continues in our nation’s newspapers and on the evening news, whether about jobs and the economy, foreign policy or the environment, the public will quickly discount Democratic achievements on Capitol Hill as ineffectual and insufficient.

That’s why Republicans were punished in 2006 and 2008, and it’s why Democrats are headed for the same fate. The president needs some good news. Unfortunately for him and his party, time is running out, and tomorrow’s news is largely beyond their control.