What does Obama's sinking popularity say about the November elections?

13:09, April 10, 2010      

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Things may be looking bad for U. S. President Barack Obama and friends.

Last week, a CBS News poll found that Obama's approval rating fell to 44 percent -- an all-time low for the president after a year in office.

And on Wednesday a Gallup poll found that only 28 percent of voters -- a record not seen since October 1992, Gallup said -- say most members of Congress deserve to be re-elected.

But the question remains whether these low marks will impact the November elections. That depends, experts said.

The biggest issue in the fall will be the economy, and Obama's numbers, as well as those of the Democratic-controlled Congress, will likely rise if the jobless rate improves.

"I think that noticeable change in a positive direction will have to occur by the summer for it to affect voters' impressions," said John Fortier, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

But in spite of the popularity slump, Obama's job approval ratings are higher than expected for a president during the worst economy since the 1930s, Fortier said.

Indeed, the President's popularity stems in part from the fact that the economic downturn began before he took office, and most voters do not blame him for the economic crisis, he said.

But as time passes, increasing numbers of voters view the economy as his responsibility.

"If all of the economic downturn had occurred on President Obama's watch, I would have expected much lower job approval ratings and even larger gains for Republicans in November," Fortier said.

Aside from the economy, a second story line about the size and scope of government -- such as the controversial 87 billion U.S. dollar stimulus bill passed in a bid to prevent the economy from spiraling out of control -- will be important to both strong populist Republicans as well as middle of the road voters, said Fortier.

Indeed, many Republicans have criticized Obama over what they say is an administration that continues to spend heavily amid a rising federal deficit. Democrats said that spending was necessary to keep the economy from free falling.

Health care is also poised to become an issue in the fall elections, and opponents of the recently passed health care reform bill still comprise a slight majority. Republican base voters strongly dislike the legislation, as well as the stimulus, because they see the two bills as signs of more government control of the economy. Moderate voters worry that health care legislation was too much, too fast and focused on the long term rather than economic problems at hand, he said.

Gallup said in both 1994 and 2006 -- the two most recent midterm elections that saw a shift in the balance of power -- "the percentage of voters saying most members deserved to be re-elected fell below 40 percent, as it does today. By contrast, in 1998 and 2002, when the existing Republican majority was maintained, 55 percent or better held this view," Gallup said in a statement.

"Additionally, 65 percent of registered voters -- the highest in Gallup history, and by far the highest in any recent midterm year -- now say most members of Congress do not deserve re- election," Gallup said.

Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, said Americans are frustrated that Obama has not been able to break the partisan gridlock, as he ran on a platform of transforming the partisan disputes that tend to engulf Washington politics.

But that does not mean Republicans are faring well, as Americans are directing their frustrations at both parties -- although Congressional Democrats are faring slightly better than Republicans -- which they view as working against each other in typical Washington fashion, he said.

"(Americans) just hate it when their parents argue. They are looking for direction from people who are supposed to be in positions of leadership and have greater knowledge. And when they listen to the debate it doesn't bring them greater clarity."

"There's bickering ... (and) they don't have confidence that either side is telling the whole story," he said.

Indeed, the recent knock-down-drag-out fight over health care reform, which culminated in the signing of a hotly contested bill, epitomizes what many voters dislike about Washington, he said.

Still, November is some time away, and the Obama administration may try to shift voters' attention away from the administration's less popular policies and focus more on foreign policy, for which the president is receiving good marks, he said.

And health care reform may gain further acceptance among its opponents when election time comes. Despite the controversial aspects, parts of the bill are popular even with opponents, such as provisions forbidding insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions or dropping policy holders when they get sick.

Another issue that could impact the November elections is the retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, which he announced Friday. A battle over the nomination and confirmation of a new justice could generate ideological arguments, which usually work against incumbents, Kull said.

Still, many experts believe that while Democrats will lose some seats, they are likely to remain the majority party.

Source: Xinhua


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