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US Democrats Bracing For Election Setbacks

In U.S. politics, President Barack Obama's public approval ratings are hitting new lows and a growing number of analysts now believe opposition Republicans have an excellent chance of winning back control of at least one chamber of Congress in midterm elections in November.  

The news for President Obama seems to be getting grimmer.  The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll found that nearly 60 percent of those surveyed lack faith in the president to make the right decisions for the country, and that only 43 percent approve of his handling of the economy.  Both figures are new lows for that poll.

The negative poll ratings have been building for some time, according to Karlyn Bowman.  Bowman monitors public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"Pew [poll] noted last week that more people think Obama is having an effect on the economy than felt that way a year ago," said Karlyn Bowman. "The bad news is that more people think he is making it worse rather than better."

The president's overall approval rating is at or just under 50 percent in most recent polls, and that could spell trouble for Democrats trying to hold onto their majorities in Congress in the November midterm elections.

Poor presidential approval ratings usually mean losses for the president's party in midterm congressional elections.  In addition, the Democrats are fighting history.  With very few exceptions, the party that controls the White House loses congressional seats in a new president's first midterm election.

Democrats hope that signs of an economic turnaround will be evident by Election Day in November, but so far the public remains skeptical.  That means the president has a lot of convincing to do between now and November as he campaigns and raises money for Democratic congressional candidates around the country.

"You have to understand, we are headed in the right direction, and what the other side is offering is basically to go back to the same ideas that got us into this mess in the first place!  That is all they are doing," said President Obama.

Republicans believe the more the president slides in the polls, the more they gain.  Texas Senator John Cornyn is coordinating the Republican effort to win back a majority of seats in the U.S. Senate.

"This will be a referendum on his leadership and we feel very good about the outcome," said Senator Cornyn.

Republicans need to win 39 additional seats in the 435-member House of Representatives to win control of that body, and would need to gain ten seats in the Senate to gain a majority in that chamber.

Many political analysts now see a Republican wave building for November, fueled in part by conservative grass roots activists who support the so-called Tea Party movement.

Even presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs recently acknowledged that there are enough competitive House races this year that would allow the Republicans to win a majority in November.

Analyst Charlie Cook says that he believes Republicans will win enough seats to take back control of the House of Representatives, in part because Republicans seem more committed to voting this year than Democrats.

"They are not enthusiastic," said Charlie Cook. "They are not energized.  They are very lethargic.  At the same time Republicans and conservatives are really motivated, really energized and they look likely to turn out in unusually large numbers.  So there is a huge gap in terms of intensity and likelihood of voting and that is important in these midterm elections where the [voter] turnout is usually about a third less than in presidential years."

Congressional midterm elections tend to draw fewer voters than turnout for presidential elections.

Cook also believes that many of the independent voters who helped elect Barack Obama president in 2008 and who supported the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 have now shifted their allegiance to the Republicans.

"This is a group that voted for Democrats for Congress by an 18 point margin in 2006," he said. "They voted for President Obama by an eight point margin in 2008, and in the Gallup Poll over the last three months they have been giving Republicans an average of a 12-point lead in the contest for Congress."

Republicans may have an advantage heading into this year's congressional election campaign, but public opinion polls also suggest they have their weaknesses as well, says polling analyst Karlyn Bowman.

"Just like the Democrats, Republicans in Congress are not highly regarded," she said. "The Republican Party is more unpopular than the Democratic Party.  People are still more likely to identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans.  Finally, more people still trust the Democrats over the Republicans to handle the big problems facing the country."

Analysts say the president could help his own cause by finding ways to boost his own poll ratings before November.

Bruce Buchanan is an expert on the presidency at the University of Texas:

"When you are below 50 percent that is when the red flags start to fly," said Bruce Buchanan. "But in terms of minimizing losses and the predicted setbacks of a first term midterm election, you want the president's approval to be as high as possible, certainly in the middle 50 percent range, 55 percent or thereabouts if possible."

Experts say a Republican takeover of one or both houses of Congress would greatly complicate President Obama's ability to govern.  Not only would Republicans be able to block or stall the president's legislative agenda, but winning a majority in the House would also allow them to launch congressional investigations and hold hearings over the next two years just as the president is preparing for his own re-election campaign in 2012.  

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