President Obama's domestic agenda has been as ambitious as any
president's in the last 50 years - including health care, economic
stimulus, and financial reform. But such ambition has not always
been rewarded by voters.
After 18 months on the job, Barack Obama has made his mark as the
Economy near collapse? Less than a month after taking office,
President Obama signed a record $787 billion stimulus package.
Comprehensive health-care reform? Obama succeeded, after a grueling
year-long legislative process, where predecessors going back decades
had failed. Credit-card reform? Check. Student loan reform? Done.
Financial regulatory reform? Close.
To Obama supporters, this burst of activity represents a welcome
record of accomplishment after eight years of damaging Republican
rule. To critics, it is an abomination marked by runaway deficits,
dangerously high public debt, and government overreach.
IN PICTURES: Inside President Obama's White House
But on one aspect there is no doubt. Obama has not won many new
fans with his activism. After winning the election in 2008 with 53
percent of the vote, and taking office with popularity ratings well
into the 60s, Obama's job-approval ratings have declined steadily
into the mid-40s - and stand at just 38 percent among independents,
according to Gallup. Neither will his Democratic Party be rewarded
for this activism in the November midterm elections. In fact, a
conservative backlash against Obama's agenda, fueled by, but not
limited to, the "tea party" movement, points to an electoral wave
that could topple the Democratic majority in the House and cut
deeply into the party's big majority in the Senate.
Obama's political peril comes as no surprise to analysts, who see
a history of presidents courting trouble by doing big things. True,
the president's party typically loses seats in the midterm
elections. But even Democrats are starting to worry out loud that
their ranks could suffer far more than the average 24 House seat
loss, potentially shedding the 39 seats Republicans need to take
"Great legislative success can generate great political
opposition," says Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public
affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. "There also might be
a more cerebral Obama at work. Meaning, these are problems he
thought were essential, and he'd rather go down in four years or be
weaker in his second term, if he could get some of these problems
solved. My guess is it's a mix."
In addition, if Obama had scaled back or given up on health care,
he would have discouraged his base supporters, which would have
dampened Democratic enthusiasm for the midterms even more than it
already is. And chances are, Obama's job-approval ratings were going
to decline regardless of what happened on health care, as soft Obama
supporters (mainly independents) discovered he was not a miracle
At the heart of Obama's problem lies the economy, with stubbornly
high unemployment and fears of a double-dip recession. Americans
vote their pocketbooks, and if they don't like what they see, many
voters will rebel. And even as the Obama administration touts the
jobs that have been created and saved via stimulus spending (mostly
saved, and mostly in the public sector), and blames Republicans for
blocking an extension of unemployment benefits, the bottom line is
still wanting, and the party in power owns it.
Obama also prides himself in being able to walk and chew gum at
the same time. He regularly heads out into the heartland for "Main
Street" economic speeches designed to reassure Americans he's on the
case. But Obama has also held tight to the big, ranging agenda he
campaigned on two years ago - succeeding on health care, though
taking far longer than he had planned, and close to completion on
Wall Street regulatory reform. Energy and climate change legislation
remains in limbo, and comprehensive immigration reform is not even
in the starting gate. …