For Obama, An Optimistic Scenario

Barack Obama’s first year was a disaster for the Democrats. His approval rating has been in free-fall, declining faster, I believe, than that of any first-year President in modern history. Congress, meanwhile, is held in near-universal contempt. If this year’s Congressional election were held next week, it would be a wipeout of epic proportions.
Fortunately for the Democrats, they have nine months to go, and conditions will likely become more favorable for them before they have to face the voters. President Obama, of course, doesn’t have to stand for re-election for nearly three years, and if he can come out of November’s elections with substantial (albeit reduced) majorities in Congress, his term might yet go down as a success–a more limited one, to be sure, than what he had in mind a year ago.
Let’s start with Obama’s approval rating. The Gallup poll has tracked his steady decline and now has him at a break-even point:
On the other hand, Rasmussen, which samples likely voters and is more of a leading indicator, has Obama showing a modest bounce: he is now up to -7 in the Rasmussen approval index, a poor score, but much better than the -21 he logged not long ago.
There are other reasons why President Obama and his advisers may take heart. Like George W. Bush, Obama is more popular, personally, than his policies. There is still a reservoir of good will toward a President who still strikes many as an attractive figure. If, like Bill Clinton, he can extricate himself from the policy mis-steps that enraged many Americans, he may yet be able to recover as a political force.
Then there is this: Rasmussen also finds a “deficit of trust,” as voters disbelieve most of what the Democrats are telling them about the economy. For example, Americans reject Obama’s claim that his stimulus measures have “put two million people back to work who would otherwise be unemployed.” Only 27% of voters buy that claim, while 51% say it is false. Here, the majority is right. But skepticism only goes so far. The President says that “after two years of recession, the economy is growing again.” Just 35% of voters believe that statement is true, while 50% say it is false. Here, the majority is wrong. The economy is indeed growing, despite the Democrats’ best efforts to shut it down. When that fact sinks in, a great many voters will look more kindly on Obama and his fellow Dems.
Somewhat perversely, the Democrats will benefit from the Republicans’ blocking of the worst aspects of their left-wing agenda. The Democrats’ two most destructive policy initiatives were government medicine and cap-and-tax. Both now appear to be dead. Thus, Republicans have saved the Democrats from having to face the worst consequences of their folly, and Democrats, sadly, will get the credit if the economy continues to recover over the next nine months.
So what will happen by next November? The American economy is hard to kill. It is now growing rather rapidly as pent-up economic activity is being released. As long as the Democrats don’t succeed in enacting their more radical initiatives, the surge will continue. Employment is always a lagging indicator of economic recovery, and voters’ awareness of job growth lags even farther behind reality. But there is a long time between now and November, and in contrast with 1992, when the liberal media kept the fact of a resurgent economy a closely guarded secret until after Bill Clinton was safely elected, in this cycle good news will be hyped non-stop.
So the Democrats may be justified in believing that the worst will be over before they have to face the voters again. They will lose seats, no doubt, in November 2010, but most likely they will remain in control of Congress. If they trim their sails, lower their objectives and stop riling the American people with radical initiatives, Obama could well be re-elected in 2012.
That, it seems to me, is the optimistic scenario that can give the Democrats hope. In conclusion, though, it requires this qualification: it’s hard to see how the Dems can get through 2010 without tax increases becoming a dominant feature of political discourse. We may or may not have a double-dip recession, but we are likely to have a double-dip in Democrats’ popularity if late 2010 is dominated by discussion of whose taxes are being increased, and by how much.