President Barack Obama’s “recovery summer” has become a summer swoon. GDP growth has downshifted, as have his poll numbers. And with Democrats likely to suffer big losses in November’s elections, the president will have to rethink his economic agenda or face gridlock in 2011.
A new Reuters-Ipsos survey puts Obama’s job approval at 48 percent, down two points from June. It’s a number that doesn’t bode well for Democrats in the congressional midterms. Since 1962, the party of a president with an approval rating under 50 percent lost an average of 41 seats in the House of Representatives. Republicans currently need 39 seats to retake the lower chamber, and thereby regain control over the initiation of tax and spending bills. (Other polls are even more discouraging. The RealClearPolitics poll aggregator has Obama at 46.0 approve, 48.7 disapprove.)
Drill a bit deeper into the poll and the danger for congressional Democrats appears even more acute. In the poll, 46 percent said they would vote Republican for Congress against 44 percent who preferred Democrats. In 2008, Democrats took 55 percent of that vote. For now at least, Republicans are also much more determined to vote in November’s polls than Democrats.
Meanwhile, 31 percent of respondents said they “strongly disapprove” of Obama’s performance, a five point jump. The economy is draining his popularity more and more every day. The Reuters poll suggests it is his weakest issue, and voters are gloomier about America’s direction than they were last summer. That’s not an unreasonable assessment. Though the U.S. economy is expanding, the annual growth rate is probably now closer to 2 percent than 3 percent — not enough to chip away much at the 9.5 percent unemployment rate before the elections come around.
A change of control in Congress might seem a harbinger of gridlock next year. The dark scenario would involve battles as Republicans try to repeal parts of recent healthcare and financial sector legislation. But with greater numbers, the GOP might in fact feel more secure and thus more willing to haggle — as it did during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Hashing out compromises would, however, also require Obama to shift toward the Republicans on key issues like taxes and regulation. Doing so would be a much better option than spending his next two years defending the sweeping reforms passed in his first two.