While scanning the Sunday paper yesterday, this headline on the front page caught my eye: “Obama to target Congress in re-election campaign”. In the article, New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler reports that “Obama’s election-year strategy is an attempt to capitalize on his recent victory on a short-term extension of the payroll tax cut and on his rising poll numbers.” Now, I can't seriously dispute that the president got what he wanted in this latest mix-up over extending the payroll tax holiday, but this business about "rising poll numbers" is far murkier.
The Dems were all excited late last month when a couple of polls showed a slight up-tick in the president's approval ratings. Calmer heads, including myself, dismissed this as a fluke or a temporary crest in the numbers that warranted no anxiety, and predictably, the most recent survey results to be released show his job approval to be in the mid-forties, where it's been for much of the year. In fact, I have not seen a poll in which the president registered a 50% approval rating or higher since June.
Perhaps the surest sign that Republicans needn’t worry—at least not yet—about a sudden, election-year upswing in Obama’s poll numbers is that, despite the trend in some polls, his approval rating never surpassed his disapproval rating in the RCP average, indicating that the slight increase in his ratings were either a fluke or a very real but short-lived bump-up.
Back to the president's joke of a re-election strategy. Much of Lander's article consisted of relaying the communiqué of Deputy Press Secretary and snake-oil salesman Joshua R. Earnest:
“In terms of the president’s relationship with Congress in 2012,” Mr. Earnest said at a briefing, “the president is no longer tied to Washington, D.C.” Winning a full-year extension of the cut in payroll taxes is the last “must-do” piece of legislation for the White House, he said.
Funny how the Republican-controlled House actually passed a full-year extension of the lower FICA rate, and the president poo-poohed it. Oh well, I guess Obama flip-flopped again, but no matter. The president and his minions evidently think they've got a winning strategy, and they've been busy developing the narrative they want to force on the largely ignorant and ill-informed voters who gave Obama his winning edge over John McCain in 2008:
The White House has been refining the message since July, when Mr. Obama’s attempts to forge a “grand bargain” with the House Republicans on fiscal policy collapsed and he reverted to a populist, anti-Congress strategy.But it did not gain traction until the last few weeks, when polls began showing that nearly half of Americans approved of the job he was doing, up from percentages in the low 40s during most of the year.House Republicans inadvertently helped him just before they recessed for the holidays when they initially refused to extend the payroll tax cut.Mr. Earnest said the strategy had successfully planted “the image of a gridlocked, dysfunctional Congress and a president who is leaving no stone unturned to try to find solutions to the difficult financial challenges and economic challenges facing the country.”
While Congress's approval ratings have taken a hit, the president has not seen a corresponding surge in his numbers, and herein lies another problem with this "populist, anti-Congress strategy." Many American voters may be stupid (They voted for President Obama, for God's sake.), but they at least understand that they're electing a president and a Congress. For Obama, it's not a pick-me-instead-of-them situation. He'll be running against a Republican candidate in the general election, and the odds are very high that it won't be a member of Congress. (Sorry, Ron Paul supporters.)
Then of course there's the comparison that so many political yuppies have been making. Mark Landler reports:
The president’s antagonism toward Congress evokes that of President Harry S. Truman, whose come-from-behind campaign in 1948 focused on a “do-nothing Congress.”But Republican analysts have pointed out that the national unemployment rate in November 1948 was 3.8 percent — not 8.6 percent, as it is now — and that the American economy was on the upswing.
Another critical difference, of course, is that in 1948 both houses of Congress were under GOP control. Currently Republicans hold the majority in the House of Representatives only. (You would think this fact would be so obvious that Landler wouldn’t feel the need to point it out, which he didn’t, but it’s amazing how ignorant so many voters can be.) Indeed, every major piece of legislation seeking to enact an Obama policy that has been advanced in the Senate only to be blocked or voted down has failed because of bipartisan opposition. Of course, Democrats don’t like to talk about this inconvenient truth, and some have expressed anger over the president’s indiscriminate lambasting of “Congress,” without partisan qualification:
For Mr. Obama, a heavily partisan strategy carries the risk of ... antagonizing Congressional Democrats, who were angry when administration officials, including the White House chief of staff, William M. Daley, criticized Congress without distinguishing between Democrats and Republicans.Democratic leaders said they were satisfied that Mr. Obama was adequately making that distinction, and they said they understood why he would want to run against a Congress whose Republican leadership had blocked his legislation and declared that its primary goal was to defeat him in November.“He has been emphatic in stating that he is running against obstructionist Republicans in the House,” said Representative Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.“As long as the president includes the word Republican when he says he is running against Congress, more power to him.”
Israel's sickeningly sycophantic support for Obama aside, the president would do well to remember that his party must defend 23 Senate seats to the Republicans' 10 in 2012, and a negative image of Congress won't exactly do wonders for endangered incumbents like Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jon Tester (D-MT) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). His president-vs.-Congress rhetoric, assuming it sinks in, further presents a two-edged sword for Republicans, who could argue to voters that, by Obama's own logic, a Republican president's economic recovery agenda would not meet as much resistance in Congress, especially if the GOP takes back the Senate.
In the coming months, Republicans will choose their nominee to take on President Obama, and voters in both parties will pick their candidates for the House and Senate. Once the 2012 general election begins in earnest, we may see a reversal of fortune for a president whose re-election prospects are increasingly grim and an energized, enthusiastic Republican Party poised to take over the U.S. Senate and hold on to the House of Representatives. It may be that voters suddenly change their minds and come around to a president whose policies have thus far been met by rejection, protest and dissatisfaction by a majority of the electorate. What seems more likely, however, is yet another course correction for a campaign that faces a lethargic economy, an unenviable record to defend, and an electorate fed up with Washington skulduggery and yearning for change. (Sound familiar?)