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Obama's Summer Window of Opportunity


The list of crises facing the White House today is lengthy and weighty: the Gulf oil spill, high domestic unemployment combined with an unstable economic situation in Europe, a cultural divide on the issue of immigration, attempts to stabilize Iraq and win Afghanistan, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal's explosive comments--and ultimate dismissal--to name just a few. Tomorrow, we are likely to get a very poor jobs report after five consecutive months of job growth. Will the jobs report be seen as the beginning of a double dip recession?

As we enter the summer of 2010, the Administration faces the most substantive macro issue agenda in decades. Bill Clinton was often described by contemporaries and historians as unhappy with the fact that few "big things" happened during his Presidency. We doubt that President Obama will ever make that complaint.

Obama does have a window of opportunity, however, to right this ship before the fall elections. It is, after all, the summer. This is a time when most voters disconnect from the political and policy debates and processes. Plain and simple, the level of information absorption declines dramatically over the next two months and Obama will benefit from this period of low attentiveness. Two things are likely to happen this summer that will help the President:

  1. The Gulf oil spill coverage has probably reached--pardon the pun--a saturation point. The shock and immediacy of the situation has abated. People are now fully aware of the damage done. The relief wells will be completed in August. If the leak is stopped before Labor Day--and right now that isn't certain--the President will have at least a partial victory. Of course, the spill will remain a political issue in the fall and perhaps 2012, but the worst will have passed for Obama.
  2. News outlets (both old media and new media) recognize the changing pattern in news consumption and act accordingly. Therefore, there is less focus on politics and public policy and this will help the President as well.

We are not saying that all of the President's problems can be solved in July and August, but this period gives the Administration an opportunity to get some traction on a few issues before the fall campaigns begin in earnest. Voters will tune back in after Labor Day and will reassess the President and his policies at that time.

Current Political Environment

Our sense is that today's jobs numbers are going to trigger some significant media coverage and modest political fallout and cause a drop in the stock market, to boot. While voters are pretty much locked-in with respect to their perceptions of the President, we may see his approval numbers start to move from the mid-40's--where they have been consistently over the last 60 days--into the low 40's. If this happens and is not corrected during the summer, the Democrats will be extremely vulnerable in the fall. The difference between an approval rating in the 46-47% range vs. ratings in the 41-42% range may be the difference between Democrats just losing the House and losing both the House and the Senate.

Perceptions that the country is off on the "wrong track" is at the highest point (62%) of the Obama presidency. Not coincidentally, Obama's approval rating is at its lowest point: 46%.

july 1 slide 1.jpg

Note in the above chart that Obama's approval rating actually started falling with little appreciable increase in the "wrong track" numbers. This indicates that voters may have been reacting to the health care reform debate, evolving assessments of the stimulus and other Obama policies. Put simply, Obama was forced to make political decisions that couldn't please everyone, disappointing voters with lofty, impossible expectations. But now he faces a more structural challenge: the combination of 12 months of unemployment at or above 9.4% (as well as the intensifying war in Afghanistan and the Gulf oil spill) have pushed the country's "wrong track" number over the 60% mark. If "wrong track" gets into the mid-60's it's hard to see the President's approval rating reaching much higher than 40-42%.

As we move closer to the fall elections it might make sense to revisit 1994 and compare the key political indices of that time to the current situation. The table below should scare any Democrat reading this post:

july 1 slide 2.jpg

A quick review of the key political metrics suggests that Democrats will most likely lose the House this fall. This, by the way, is not necessarily the worst thing that could happen for a President Obama running for re-election. Gridlock in Congress would provide him with political cover for an extended recession or slow recovery, as well as giving Obama and the Democrats something to run against in two years.

The biggest problem for Democrats might be that among energized/interested voters, the gap on the generic congressional ballot is even higher (in the Republican +6 range). The problems for Democrats nationally are extensive and notable:

  • Voter interest is higher among GOP leaning and Independent voters than Democrats
  • Congressional approval is an historic low
  • The President's approval rating among Independents is only 40%
  • The "re-elect" numbers are at or near historic lows and there are substantially more Democrats than Republicans in office
  • The engaged voters are angry about spending and the stimulus package; this gives the GOP a huge advantage

Now whether the above translates into a thirty or a fifty seat gain for Republicans remains to be seen, but unless Democrats and the President can turn things around a bit this summer, November 2nd will be an unpleasant day.

Thanks to John Zirinsky and Peter Ventimiglia for their thoughts and insights. Follow us on Twitter and read our perspectives and others' on Pollster.com or the Daily Caller.

 

Comments
Aaron_in_TX:

"Obama does have a window of opportunity, however, to right this ship before the fall elections"

I don't really see what Obama can do about any of this. If it's going to be bad, it's going to be bad. I would be judicious about my appearances if I were him, although his handlers seem to think his public exposure is a good thing. I think it doesn't help and may hurt him slightly. He's polarizing right now and him giving speeches is just as likely to rile up his opponents rather than rally his supporters.

I'm also not big on apples-to-apple comparisons of the 1994 "indices" to today's because of non-quantitative factors.

Are there corresponding numbers to 1982? I would think that is the mid-term that makes a more apt comparison than 1994, particularly due to the unemployment. The economy was fairly decent in 1994.

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hoosier_gary:

I agree about the appearances, Aaron. I think he needs some new handlers. They don't seem to understand that sending him out in campaign attack mode is not firing up his base - it is consolidating his opposition.

I can't speak for his supporters but I would have to think that even they are getting tired of this 4 year campaign Obama has been on. Doesn't the constant sniping and throwing out sound-bite barbs become grating to even his supporters?

I'll have to admit that I was surprised at the reasonable, but very negative apraisal of the outcome for democrats this fall. I expected to see yet another analysis stating why this year is so different from other years and the democrats are going to rally to minimize their losses.

A friend and I have been discussing if Obama has read the writing on the wall and is actually looking forward to the republicans taking the house. Then when congress tries to prevent the Clinton tax hikes from automatically returning, he will veto it and say it is just the republicans trying to give tax cuts to the rich. He wants an excuse to jack up taxes and having a republican congress might give him that excuse.

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