As discussed here, there was a lot of talk yesterday about two big national polls that showed some weakening of public support for elements of the Obama agenda, and a sudden upsurge of concern about budget deficits, along with continued high support levels for the President, and continued hard times for Republicans. (A third poll, from Pew, came out later in the day, and generally showed the same trends).
Most of the commentary on the polls focused on short-term issues, particularly health care. But over at The New Republic, TDS Co-Editor William Galston offered a much broader assessment about public opinion trends that point towards possible difficulty for Democrats in the 2010 elections. After noting the President’ still-strong overall approval ratings, and the strong public belief that he inherited many of the country’s problems, Galston notes these danger signs for Obama and Democrats:
[T]he people have little confidence in government as an effective instrument of public purpose. Trust in government remains near an historic low and has not improved significantly since the beginning of Obama’s presidency. Only 34 percent think that government should do more to solve national problems, down seven points in the past three months. Sixty-nine percent express “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of concern about the expanding role of the federal government in areas such as automobile companies, corporate compensation, and health care.
Second, people are unsure about Obama’s overall economic strategy. Only 46 percent say that they are “extremely” or “quite” confident that the president has the right set of goals and policies to improve the economy; 53 percent are not. According to Pew, approval of the president’s handling of the economy has declined by eight points (from 60 to 52 percent) since mid-April.
Third, evidence is accumulating that the administration misjudged the public’s reaction to increased spending and rising budget deficits, which now rank second in the list of top concerns in the NYT/CBS poll, behind only job creation and economic growth, and ahead of health care costs as an economic issue….
Fourth, while there is majority support for the broad architecture of health reform that the administration espouses, doubts about specifics are multiplying.
Moroever, says Galston, the economic situation is not likely to visibly improve–particularly in terms of unemployment–before voters go to the polls in November of 2010:
Indeed, [the] history of recessions over the past three decades suggests that unemployment is likely to be at least as high on Election Day next year as it is today. In the face of jobless recoveries, both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton saw their personal popularity decline during their first two years in office, and their parties experienced significant losses during the first mid-term test.
The best thing Democrats have going for them right now is the public’s near-total withdrawal of confidence from the Republican Party, which now “enjoys” its lowest rating ever recorded in the NYT/CBS survey–a finding that Pew confirms. But if the deficit surges while the job market languishes, even the Republicans’ collapse may not be enough to save the governing party from a painful reverse next year.
Democrats need to take these warning signs seriously, but I would note three mitigating factors, all related to the fact that elections are between parties and candidates, and are never pure “referenda” on the “governing party.”
First, some of the unhappiness with Obama policies is among voters who are unlikely to vote Republican. This is most obvious with the auto and financial-sector “bailout” efforts. While we do not, unfortunately, have party crosstabs on these issues for any of the three new polls, it’s been obvious since last fall that opponents of these “bailouts” tend to fall into two very different categories: conservatives who oppose excessive government interference with the private sector, and progressives who view the “bailouts” as corporate subsidies and/or want resources spent elsewhere. The latter are not a ripe target for Republican vote-gatherers, and their generally high levels of support for the President probably indicate that a big drop in turnout isn’t likely either.
Second, for an opposition party to harvest unhappiness with conditions in the country or incumbent policies, it must have its own act reasonably together. Ideally, for Republicans to have a big year in 2010, they’d need to position themselves as a constructive governing partner who will act to restrain the President and his congressional allies. There are virtually no signs that the GOP is moving in that direction, and their problems in identifying any recognized leadership other than Rush Limbaugh or Dick Cheney is a big handicap in that effort.
Third, the lay of the land in 2010 may militate against some sort of 1994-style Republican landslide, even if conditions are otherwise favorable for it. At present, Republicans are mainly hoping to avoid losses in the Senate, where a rash of retirements, primaries, and weak incumbents are causing them problems. The House is another story, though the Democratic margin there is large enough that the moderate losses many Democrats expect as normal wouldn’t be a disaster. And at the state level, where the 2010 results could have a big impact on redistricting, you can identify about as many states where gubernatorial switches from R to D are likely as those where D to R takeovers seem to be in the cards.
Galston does not get into 1994/2010 parallels, though we will soon hear lots of that given the Clinton-Obama parallels being so often drawn on health care and tax issues, not to mention the wishful thinking of Republicans. Anticipating those parallels, it’s important to understand that a lot of things were going on in 1994 that had little to do with Bill Clinton: Democrats had controlled the U.S. House for forty consecutive years; the partisan realignment of the South was at its peak (accelerating by racial gerrymandering); and Democrats had a very high number of congressional retirements. Republicans were also unified behind effective leadership. A repeat of those conditions is nearly impossible, and of those results, highly unlikely. And all of these “mitigating factors,” of course, don’t take into account the evidence that the country is currently undergoing demographic changes that tilt the playing ground strongly towards the Donkey Party.