U.S. President Barack Obama has seen his approval ratings dip in some recent public opinion polls and that has Democrats worried as they prepare for November’s congressional midterm elections.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News survey found the president’s approval rating at a record low of 41 percent.
And the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that only 38 percent approved of President Obama’s handling of foreign policy - also a low mark for his presidency.
There are plenty of reasons for the dip in public confidence.
Two-term presidents often experience a slip in poll ratings in their sixth year, just in time for the congressional midterm elections. And that usually spells trouble for the party controlling the White House, according to George Washington University expert John Sides.
“For better or for worse, the president is the party’s leader and as he sinks or swims, so goes the party,” Sides said. “The Democrats would be in a much better position if Obama were having kind of an increase in his second term approval that would match something like Bill Clinton’s.”
A number of Democrats in tough re-election fights in November are already putting some distance between themselves and the president, especially some Senate Democrats in Republican-leaning states like Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina.
“I think they are probably going to try to distinguish themselves somewhat from the president’s agenda and hopefully thereby blunt any impact that his unpopularity might have in those places,” Sides said. “Democrats who represent Republican-leaning states and districts don’t have a lot of reason to mention the president, to have him campaign for them, to mention his record.”
Foreign policy at issue
Republicans will focus much of their campaign this year to voter worries about the economy and the troubled rollout of the president’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act.
But recent polls also show a decline in public approval of the president’s handling of foreign policy. In the recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, only 37 percent of those surveyed approved of the way President Obama is handling Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
Republicans have been quick to criticize the administration on Ukraine including Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
“And so I’m disappointed in the administration’s tepid response that we’ve seen and I think it’s time to issue the tougher economic sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy,” Ayotte said.
Democratic pollster and strategist Celinda Lake acknowledges that the events in Ukraine are having an impact in the polls.
“There are a lot of Americans who like a more muscular foreign policy, particularly when you are facing the Soviet Union or former Soviet Union, particularly when you are facing a bully like Putin,” she said.
The recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll also found that Americans appear to be more reluctant than ever to engage overseas, especially if there is a risk of military involvement.
The survey found 47 percent agreed with the notion that the U.S. should be less active in world affairs, a figure that is higher for similar surveys conducted back to the mid 1990’s.
But after lengthy military involvements in both Afghanistan and Iraq, pollster Lake said Americans are sending a clear message to policy makers from both political parties that it’s time to refocus on problems at home.
“Americans are just so tired of being involved abroad,” she said. “There is just real fatigue about it.”
President Obama defended his foreign policy during his recent trip to Asia.
He said that critics always seem to want him to take tougher action, including options that might involve military force.
“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget? “ President Obama told a news conference in the Philippines recently. “If we took all the actions that our critics have demanded, we’d lose count of the number of military conflicts that America would be engaged in.”
Preparing for November
The president made light of his poll situation during his remarks at the recent White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington.
“Folks are saying that with my sagging poll numbers, my fellow Democrats don’t really want me campaigning with them,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s true though I did notice the other day that Sasha needed a speaker at career day and she invited Bill Clinton.”
Pollster Celinda Lake said Democrats are much more aware of their political predicament this year than they were in 2010 when Republicans clobbered them at the polls on Election Day and retook control of the House of Representatives. She said Democrats are hyper-focused this year on turning out their core supporters who like to vote in presidential election years but not so much in midterm congressional cycles.
This group includes what she called the “Rising American Electorate” of younger people, unmarried women and minority voters.
Some analysts believe signs of an improving economy could help the Democrats blunt the Republican advantage this year.
“Perhaps because it is spring we are seeing a tiny bit of optimism that we haven’t seen since before 2008. [There have been] hints of it in a number of polls in the last two or three weeks and that could certainly advantage the Democrats if in fact it continues,” said public opinion expert Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute.
But Lake said that even as the Obama administration tries to convince voters that the economy is improving, many at the lower income levels are not feeling it.
“Voters are very distrustful about the economy,” she said. “American voters, particularly blue-collar voters, do not feel that this economy is in recovery. Many of the Democratic Party’s base constituencies are ones that have had the hardest time—young people, unmarried people, people of color.
“So it’s a tough election cycle and you are going to see a lot of incumbents be surprised and you are going to see turnout matter a lot and it’s going to be tough for Democrats, there is no question about it,” Lake said.
So while some Democrats keep their distance from President Obama in their re-election efforts, many will eagerly welcome campaign help from former President Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who is expected to decide whether to run for president sometime after the midterm elections.
And helping Democratic candidates in 2014 could pay dividends down the line if Hillary Clinton decides to make another bid for the White House two years from now.