Americans are off to the beach, the mountains and even local rooftops to celebrate our 238th birthday. But when it comes to our current political landscape, it’s hard to find much to celebrate.
Washington remains mired in political gridlock and the outlook for the remainder of the Obama presidency is far from rosy. The latest poll numbers for President Barack Obama no doubt depress even his most loyal Democratic supporters. In the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, only 40 percent approve of his performance. Quinnipiac also asked more than 1,400 voters nationwide who has been the worst president since World War II and, unfortunately for the White House, Obama was at the top (or bottom, depending how you look at it) of the list.
Thirty-three percent of those surveyed said Obama was the worst president in this period, followed by former President George W. Bush at 28 percent and former President Richard Nixon with 13 percent. If you are old enough to have lived through the Watergate period of the 1970s, it’s kind of amazing to see that voters today place not one but two presidents below him on the ratings scale. Of course, it’s always wise to remember what pollsters say, that these surveys are nothing more than a snapshot in time often prone to wild swings as the years go by. Bush surely hopes that is the case. Obama may be having some similar thoughts as well.
So who do people rate as the best presidents post-World War II? The Quinnipiac survey found former President Ronald Reagan in the top spot with 35 percent, followed by former President Bill Clinton at 18 percent and former President John Kennedy at 15 percent. Clinton in particular remains an amazing political phenomenon, a proverbial cat with nine lives who rivals Lazarus with his ability to rise from the political dead.
Clinton left office in early 2001, but he remains a potent force on the U.S. political scene today and could be an enormous help if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decides to run for president in 2016. Remember, Clinton came out of nowhere to win the 1992 Democratic Party nomination, beating an incumbent president (George H.W. Bush) who had led the country to a decisive military victory in the first Gulf War. Clinton then survived the Republican Revolution of 1994 to bounce back and win re-election in 1996.
Most amazing of all was that Clinton’s popularity actually grew once he left office despite the fact he was only the second U.S. president impeached by Congress – later acquitted by the Senate.
Hardening positions and tough rhetoric
The political clashes of the 1990s between the likes of Bill Clinton and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich are starting to look like the good old days compared to what is happening now. Obama is increasingly frustrated with Republicans efforts to either block his agenda in Congress or not act on it, with immigration reform being the latest example. House Speaker John Boehner says Republicans intend to sue the president, and though the specifics aren’t clear yet, the thrust appears to be an effort to stop the president from acting unilaterally through executive orders.
Obama has been highlighting the differences in recent speeches. He told a crowd in Minneapolis that Republicans "aren’t doing anything and then they are mad that I am doing something." The president seems intent on taking some action on the immigration front, especially in light of the situation on the southern border and the influx of tens of thousands of young illegal immigrants, many from Central America. Obama seemed to dare Republican congressional leaders to try and stop him during a recent speech in Washington with a simple challenge: “So sue me.”
Republicans will no doubt use this tougher rhetoric as fodder to drive conservatives to the polls this November for the midterm congressional elections. Conservative talk show hosts and some activists have long driven a narrative that the Obama administration’s unilateral actions fit nicely into the category of “an imperial presidency”, a possible clarion call to Tea Party supporters and Obama critics to turn out in big numbers in November.
Focus on the Midterms
Given that the chances for agreement on substantial legislation in Congress are now fleeting, both sides are ramping up their arguments for midterm voters. Democrats start with a huge disadvantage. A lot of their folks are much less inclined to turn out in midterm congressional elections than they are for a presidential contest.
Obama and other Democrats are now heavily focused on encouraging core Democratic supporters, especially what they like to call the “rising electorate”, to get off their rumps and out to the polls in November. That rising electorate includes younger voters, especially unmarried women, as well as Hispanic and Asian-American voters. In fact, many Democrats see motivating younger unmarried women as the key to boosting turnout enough that it could save their majority in the U.S. Senate.
There is general consensus among political analysts and pundit-types that Republicans appear to have a big advantage in holding on to their majority in the House of Representatives. In fact, by some estimates, they could add seats. The real battle is for control of the Senate, where 36 of the 100 seats are at stake. Republicans need to gain six Democratic seats to reclaim a majority. That would normally be a tall order in any election year but this year there are far more Democratic seats at stake than Republican, and many of the Democratic seats are in states where Republicans have an advantage.
Most analysts right now give the Republicans an excellent chance of winning the six seats they need. It may be close in the end, but most of the experts say that Democratic control of the Senate is now teetering on a knife’s edge.
Foreign policy impact
One of the main drivers of Obama’s weakening approval numbers is declining support for his handling of foreign policy. A couple of recent polls have it down to only 37 percent, undoubtedly due in part to what has been taking place in Iraq, Ukraine and Afghanistan. The latest Quinnipiac poll found that 57 percent of those asked disapproved of the president’s handling of Iraq. But in the same poll, 51 percent also blamed George W. Bush more than Obama for the current situation in Iraq and 61 percent now say it was wrong for the U.S. to have invaded back in 2003. As to further U.S. involvement in Iraq, Americans say it is not in the national interest by a margin of 56 to 39 percent.
Obama gets better marks on his handling of Afghanistan. Forty-six percent say the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is “about right”, 26 percent say it is too fast and 20 percent say it’s not fast enough.
Foreign policy had been one of the president’s strengths and one of the reasons he won re-election two years ago. But now poor presidential approval ratings on both foreign policy and the economy could hurt Democrats at the polls this November.
Analysts have long pointed out that there is usually a connection between presidential approval ratings and the fate of the president’s party in midterm elections. Right now, things are not looking good for the president or for Democrats in November, and time is running out to try to alter the political landscape.