The numbers are getting no better for Obama

President Obama is seen through the window of a vehicle as he walks to board the motorcade at the White House on Saturday, en route to Andrews Air Force Base.
President Obama is seen through the window of a vehicle as he walks to board the motorcade at the White House on Saturday, en route to Andrews Air Force Base. (CAROLYN KASTER / Associated Press)
Posted: October 09, 2011

When President Obama, during an ABC News interview Monday, called himself the "underdog" in his quest for a second term, it was a rare admission. After all, presidents are supposed to project resoluteness and optimism, not admit weakness.

Yet Obama was just acknowledging the cold truth: His polling numbers have sunk so low that leading Democrats fret about the real possibility he could lose in 2012.

On the other side, some Republican elites are stressing the need to produce the most electable nominee possible to avoid blowing a golden opportunity. That impulse, in part, fueled the recent frenzy of donors and leaders begging Gov. Christie to reconsider his "no" and jump into the presidential race.

Christie resisted, but the GOP still has reason for hope: Most presidential reelection campaigns turn on the incumbent's performance - and high unemployment, low consumer confidence, and slow economic growth are making Obama vulnerable.

"The Obama numbers are as weak as anything I've ever seen," said Mike Hudome, a veteran GOP strategist who advised Obama's last presidential opponent, John McCain, in 2008 and is unaligned in the 2012 contest. "Unless we nominate Fred Flintstone, we'll be fine. And we don't have a history of doing that."

Gallup's Thursday tracking poll, based on a rolling average of hundreds of interviews over three days, found that just 38 percent of Americans nationally approved of the job Obama is doing, the lowest mark of his presidency.

More worrisome to Democrats are signs that opposition to Obama is hardening, especially among independents.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,002 Americans, released Tuesday, four in 10 "strongly" disapproved of the way Obama is handling the presidency, up from 28 percent in January. Forty-three percent of independent voters "strongly" disapproved.

The poll also found that support for Obama among his Democratic base was weaker than the opposition among Republicans.

So it is no accident that Obama's rhetoric has shifted lately from talk of compromise, which tends to please independents, to attacks on Republicans blocking his policies in Congress, which fires up dispirited Democrats.

"If Congress does nothing . . . I think the American people will run them out of town," Obama said Thursday during a White House news conference at which he was scathing toward GOP leaders in Congress who have stalled consideration of his jobs bill.

"He's been doing better, moving away from the mealymouthed, professorial lack of passion," said Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist Neil Oxman, who was the top political adviser to Gov. Ed Rendell. "When things go bad, the average American wants you to be as angry and passionate as they are."

While he hears concerns on Obama's standing from Democrats, including anxious clients around the nation, Oxman is not panicking, because the president's approval rating measures him in a vacuum, with no GOP nominee for contrast.

"Given what's happened with the economy and the impasse in Washington, I don't think his numbers are going to get much better until it's no longer just a referendum on Obama, but a choice," Oxman said. "I tell people who are scared that the election is after next year's World Series."

The prospect of running against a "do-nothing" Congress has cheered Obama supporters, who envision the president replicating the success of Harry Truman, who was reelected narrowly in 1948 after using a GOP-controlled House and Senate as his foil.

Scholars note that the 80th Congress was not exactly shiftless - it created the Air Force and the CIA and enacted Truman's Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe after World War II. On the other hand, lawmakers spent a lot of time on oversight hearings that looked to many voters then like partisan witch hunts.

Further, the U.S. economy was growing at a superheated 6.8 percent rate in the first half of 1948, according to a study by political scientist James Campbell of the University of Buffalo. That has to explain much of Truman's miraculous comeback, Campbell argues.

The International Monetary Fund projects 1.5 percent growth in the economy over 2011 and 1.8 percent in 2012.

"Of course, economic projections are frequently wrong: Obama could enjoy an unexpected surge in growth that would propel him to reelection," Brendan Nyhan, assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, wrote last week in an essay for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"But in its absence, he will face a much more difficult path to reelection than Truman did," Nyhan said.

A survey conducted by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg late last month found that Obama's job approval stood at 41 percent across 60 battleground House districts now held by Republicans, many of them in suburbs where Obama needs to do well. Those included four districts in the Philadelphia area. Only 32 percent of independents across the districts approved of his performance.

In 2008, Obama carried these districts with 52 percent of the vote.

"The political atmosphere is totally toxic," Greenberg said in a memo accompanying the survey. "The mood is framed by dissatisfaction with the economy and Washington's inability to make things better."

About the only good news in the Greenberg poll: Voters are not happy with the incumbent Republicans in those 60 districts, either, and broadly support Obama's jobs plan, which includes tax cuts for small businesses and federal aid to rehire construction workers and teachers.

Congressional leaders have not scheduled votes on Obama's proposal.

Jim Burn, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said the jobs bill would help the party draw contrasts even if it did not pass Congress. Obama and Democrats have tried to paint Republicans, including their candidates for president, as protectors of the wealthy because they want to roll back new regulations on Wall Street and refuse to consider an increase in tax rates for the wealthiest people and corporations.

"This president represents the middle class," Burn said. "Each of those Republicans has shown they are clearly looking out for the top 1 percent."

Republicans say now would be the worst time to raise taxes, particularly for those in a position to create jobs. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) dismissed Obama's attack as mere politics.

"We're legislating; he's campaigning," Boehner said Thursday at the Atlantic's Washington Ideas Forum. "It's disappointing."

Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or, or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at


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