The latest raft of polls isn't great news for President Obama and congressional Democrats. His average approval rating has
. So where did they go wrong? What could they have done to avoid what many analysts see as portents of doom for the 2010 House and Senate elections?
Probably nothing. In fact, they'd be in even worse shape if they had made different choices.
For instance, say Obama and his party had not muscled through a $787 billion stimulus package and spent nearly that much to rescue banks and car companies. Most experts say those steps averted the collapse of the U.S. economy. A collapse would have been, suffice it to say, far more upsetting to voters than the bailouts and deficit spending they are criticizing now.
Moving along to health reform, some pundits argue that Obama should have punted or gone small or written the darn bill himself to avoid the messy, irritating marathon now in progress. But delay or small ball would have left the field wide open for stories about health insurance horrors, Obama reneging on a central campaign pledge, and the general incompetence of Democrats. As for writing the bill himself, that came to naught for the Clintons in 1994. In any case, as many senators are now making perfectly clear, there is no way to control a senator who does not want to be controlled.
Obama has also raised expectations with his foreign trips, and as he headed for the Copenhagen climate summit, the Republican Party helpfully released an archive of negative assessments
of his travels. On the other hand, what if Obama hadn't gone to Copenhagen in October to argue for a Chicago Olympics, or again this week to try to cement international progress on global warming? Then we would be hearing about how he might have made a difference but he didn't care, or he didn't try hard enough.
The truth is that presidents are hostages to fortune. George W. Bush had an 84 percent approval rating
at this point in his first term because it was just after the 9/11 attacks. Obama is at the same level as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and that should be no surprise. All three inherited bad economies.
Obama is also experiencing what Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, calls "wear and tear" over health care and Afghanistan. "There aren't many good things going for Obama. He's in reasonably good shape given the environment," Kohut told me.
All the new polls document an enthusiasm gap -- Republicans and independents all fired up, Democrats in a funk. Democrats seem to be sapped by the huge problems their president has had to deal with; the amount of money he's spending to try to put things right; the unending conflict over his big agenda items, and the success of a Republican roadblock strategy characterized by MSNBC as "the audacity of nope."
That last in particular has prolonged every skirmish in the Great Health Reform War of 2009, helped turn public opinion against the bill, and stoked Republican hopes for 2010. The saying in GOP circles, says pollster Ed Goeas, is that Democrats aren't going to be "a part of history. They're going to BE history."
Do Republicans truly believe that health reform will be the begining of the end of freedom, democracy and health care as we know it? Or do they secretly suspect that when a bill has passed, its provisions are publicized, and they start taking effect, Americans will come to view this as an enormous achievement and give Democrats full credit? Either way, from the GOP perspective, it's a fight worth waging.
Most analyses of the perils of passage, such as this one
, are based on bad numbers for the overall bill. At the same time, 69 percent in the latest Pew poll say the debate is hard to understand
, up from 63 percent in July. Many individual elements of the bill poll well on their own. So perhaps Republicans should be worried about what will happen when the public finally understands its contents.
It's also possible that Obama and Democrats may reap a bit of reward even before that, at the instant of passage. This is based on the theory that the public hates sausage-making and likes resolution.
A case in point: Obama was rated badly on his handling of the war in Afghanistan during three months of deliberations and leaks on how to proceed there. It was his worst issue
in a Gallup poll late last month. But since announcing his plan in a Dec. 1 speech to cadets at West Point, he's moved into positive territory
even though the war itself remains unpopular. A Gallup poll found he had won over majorities of both Democrats and Republicans
-- "an unusual feat" in a partisan environment, Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport told me.
In the end, by which I mean two months before the 2010 congressional elections, Obama won't be primarily judged on health care or Afghanistan or tangible "deliverables" from foreign trips. Instead, those issues and Obama himself will be seen through the prism of the economy: Competent and effective, or hapless and weak? If jobs are being created and the unemployment rate is heading downard; if confidence is growing along with the GDP; if more voters feel the nation is on the right track and the road to recovery, then Obama and his party will be vindicated in the choices they made.
Right now, the landscape looks like this: Eighty-four percent in a new Pew poll say they've recently cut back on spending. Two-thirds in a new George Washington University Battleground Poll say they've been out of work in the past year or know someone who has been. And these polls were conducted before people felt the impact of holiday bills and end-of-year layoffs. For the ruling party, things are likely to get worse before they get better. And there are no choices that could have changed that reality, or the crisis that caused it.