There have been some discernible jitters among some Democrats over President Obama's approval rating dive. This shouldn't surprise. 2014 looms big as an election year in which Democrats will have to fight tooth and nail to retain their razor thin edge in the Senate. They'll also have to wage an equally intense flanking action to insure that the GOP doesn't pad its majority in the House. There are also a lot of state offices that are up for grabs. So at first glance, Obama's ratings dip should matter if for no other reason than public opinion about the on the job performance of presidents are commonly regarded as the standard gauge of public approval or disapproval of the party and its policies that control the White House.
But this is misleading. The long history of post-presidential election wins has shown that presidential approval ratings are fluid and in flux. A flop of a war will deflate a president's approval ratings. This was true with Harry Truman and the Korean War, Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War and George W. Bush and the Iraq War. A victorious war, or at least an end to a war, will lift a president's ratings. That was the case with Eisenhower and Korea, George H.W. Bush and the Gulf War and Clinton and the non-combatant air surgical war in Bosnia. But even these three presidents at various points during their terms also saw their ratings drop. Whether a president's ratings rise or fall, they aren't running for reelection so their approval numbers have no effect on their prospects. The only issue of concern is their legacy. The same is true with Obama.
Yet that doesn't mean much to other Democrats who are running for reelection. Their worries took flight with Obama's handling of the computer glitches in the health care law roll-out. There's little doubt the perceived bungle in the initial implementation of the law has hurt, and hurt badly. It's the single biggest reason for Obama's quick approval numbers drop. However, the always sore spot issues of the economy and the budget battles aren't far behind in the scorecard of alleged fumbles by Obama. The health care glitch though has virtually singlehandedly resuscitated the GOP's seemingly fading prospects for a 2014 electoral revival. For the first time in recent memory a rising number of Americans blame the Democrats, and Obama, for the fiscal infighting, stalemate and mess that have become Washington's patented trademark. No matter how much or how often, Obama correctly finger points the GOP for its pigheaded obstructionism, but there are 435 congresspersons, and 100 senators and only one president, and he presents a popular and visible target to dump blame on for the problems. However, there's little evidence that the GOP has gained much traction from the president's numbers slide in their battle to take back the Senate. Even the supposed at-risk Democratic senators in red states still hold polling leads over their presumed GOP rivals. This may not change. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll of young voters found that Obama's ratings had dropped among youth. But it is also found that a gargantuan 75 percent of young voters held high contempt for congressional Republicans. It's hard to think that despite their grumble about Obama they will miraculously morph into GOP backers in 2014.
The added trump card is that the health care website flub will almost certainly be a moot campaign point months down the line when health care web site glitches are corrected, and they will be corrected. Also, the recent history of elections is another warning not to read too much into a president's approval numbers. In 2005, Bush's approval ratings had tanked even before the Hurricane Katrina bungle. The pile of Bush woes had mounted. There was the flawed and failed Iraq war, his scheme to privatize Social Security, his failure on immigration reform, a stagnant economy, and the Republican corruption and sex scandals. Bush's approval numbers wallowed far below Obama's falling numbers. Yet, the next year, the GOP roared back and took the House, grabbed control in several state legislatures, and won governorships in several key states.
Then there's the other side of the presidential popularity coin. Obama's high popularity and approval ratings that propelled him to his reelection victory didn't translate into the Democrat's breaking the GOP grip on the House. There are just too many intangibles from the economy to public fears over terrorism that can have a bigger bearing on who wins and loses elections in 2014 and 2016 than a president's approval ratings.
This is not to say that Obama's approval ratings are totally meaningless. The perception of a weakened president can embolden his avowed political enemies, in the case of Obama, the GOP, to play even harder ball on his legislative initiatives, most notably immigration reform, his appointments, and the still festering problem of the budget. It could even cause some Democrats to gripe even more loudly about Obama's drag on their election fortunes. But in the end, Obama's popularity numbers are just that his numbers, and not those of any other Democrat.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.
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