Obama's ratings are crucial to the midterm fortunes of congressional Democrats

By Dan Balz
Sunday, February 14, 2010; A02

The latest polls underscore the depth of dissatisfaction with Washington around the country in the opening weeks of this election year. For nervous Democrats on Capitol Hill, nothing will be more important to their reelection prospects than how President Obama responds to the anger that's out there.

The new polls found anti-Washington and anti-incumbent sentiment today as great as it has been in many years. The deep recession, continued high unemployment and political polarization in Washington have put the country in a sour mood toward politicians. Disapproval of Congress hit 71 percent in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.

This has sent political strategists scrambling for historical analogies. What they see are similarities to 2006 and 1994, two midterm election years in which control of Congress changed hands. Anger at Washington was also quite high during the standoffs in the mid-1990s between the Republican-controlled Congress led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and then-President Bill Clinton.

No two elections are identical, however. The Pew Research Center, under the direction of Andrew Kohut, issued its latest national survey Friday. The report called the level of anti-incumbent sentiment "as extensive as it has been in 16 years of Pew Research surveys." But it went on to note two important differences between the political climate of today and that of 2006 and 1994.

First is the public perception of the two parties. Today, Democrats are seen more favorably than are Republicans, although that margin has narrowed considerably in recent months. Through most of the 2006 cycle, the opposition party (then the Democrats) was seen more favorably than the incumbent party (the Republicans). In 1994, both parties had much more positive images than they do today.

Second, according to Pew, "opinions about Barack Obama are not nearly as negative as were views of George Bush in 2006 and are somewhat better than opinions of Bill Clinton were for much of 1994. Throughout 2006, significantly more people said their votes that fall would be against Bush than said their votes would be for Bush. Today, more people say their votes this fall will be "for" Obama than "against" Obama.

Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, takes a different approach to his analysis of the dissatisfaction with Washington, but he points to a similar conclusion: Pay attention to the president.

Writing in Larry J. Sabato's "Crystal Ball" on Thursday, Abramowitz analyzed the relationship between presidential approval and congressional approval. He noted that Congress is often disliked. Congressional disapproval often far exceeds that of the incumbent president. Citing Gallup Poll data, he said that since 1974, Congress has received an approval rating above 50 percent only 29 of the 199 times people have been asked to rate the legislative branch and that "a majority of those positive ratings occurred during the two years following the 9/11 attacks."

There is, however, a correlation between presidential approval and congressional approval. "When the president is more popular, Congress tends to be more popular, and when the president is less popular, Congress tends to be less popular," he wrote.

There are many indicators to which political strategists will pay attention in the coming months. One is general sentiment about the direction of the country, which was in the dumps just before the 2008 election, improved during the early months of Obama's presidency and now has soured again.

Another is whether Americans say they plan to vote for the Republican or the Democrat for the House. This has never been an infallible indicator in predicting how many seats will change hands. But currently the public is split evenly, and among registered voters, Republicans have a statistically insignificant but politically notable advantage. Not many months ago, Democrats had a big edge here.

The most important indicator, however, is the president's approval. Evaluations of Congress have "very little influence" on what happens in congressional elections, Abramowitz wrote. "When it comes to choosing candidates for Congress, it is opinions of the president's performance that matter."

Independent analyst Rhodes Cook produced a helpful analysis recently that looked at the impact of presidential approval on midterm elections. Almost without exception, presidents with approval ratings below 50 percent at the time of the midterm election saw their party suffer the most significant losses.

That puts Obama on the cusp of the danger zone. For much of the last six months, Obama's slide in the polls has drawn the biggest headlines. His approval ratings plummeted from about 70 percent around the 100-day mark of his presidency to about 50 percent by the end of last year. It remains there today.

The best thing that can be said about him is that his approval ratings have stopped falling. The challenge for Obama will be to improve his standing with the American people enough to provide some protection for Democrats trying to hold down their expected losses.

Part of his strategy must be to disassociate himself from Congress. The long health-care battle put a focus on the worst of the legislative branch -- inside deals, arcane procedures, endless wrangling -- and kept Obama attached to Democratic congressional leaders. His determination to spend more time outside of Washington gives him the opportunity to reconnect with Americans, to stay above the fray in Washington and to show that he is committed to restoring some measure of bipartisanship to the capital.

At the same time, he hopes to draw a sharper contrast with congressional Republicans, as he was able to do when he appeared before the House GOP retreat two weeks ago. In the past six months, Republicans have gained significant ground on Obama in the public's estimation of whom they trust to handle major issues.

Obama needs to reopen that gap. The next opportunity for contrast, and perhaps cooperation, will come Feb. 25, when he hosts a health-care summit with congressional leaders from both parties.

Most important, however, will be results. Can he deliver on the promise of a better economy? Will his policies -- or the natural movements of the business cycle -- produce enough new jobs to lower the unemployment rate over the next six months? On unemployment, the forecasts are more pessimistic.

The president's rising disapproval provoked speculation late last year that members of Congress in competitive races would begin to put distance between themselves and him. That's to be expected. But no Democrat can truly escape the fortunes of the president. The party's political futures this fall are inextricably tied to how well people think Obama is doing his job.

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