POLITICS
12/21/2010 01:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama vs. The 'Tear Down Congress'

WASHINGTON — As Congress and the president prepare to leave town for Christmas, comparisons to LBJ and FDR are in the air — or at least in the press releases of the Democratic Party.

But Democrats are not playing FDR's stirring "Happy Days are Here Again" anthem, or even Lyndon Johnson's "The Eyes of Texas."

Why? Because Democrats here know the dismal truth. They can read new polls, which are a grim follow-up to last month's "shellacking."

They know that the impressively "historic" legislative motion — however well intentioned — sapped Barack Obama's popularity, reduced and divided the ranks of his own party, and gave resurgent Republicans a game plan for the next two years: to re-litigate and dismantle most of what he erected in the last two.

That will be the core dynamic: the president versus the "Tear Down Congress." Maybe such a standoff will get Barack Obama reelected in 2012; Republicans are certainly capable of blowing it by playing slavishly to their new "just say no" Tea Party base.

But it's going to be a hard slog.

"We'll be ready but it'll be a tough time next year," said Kathleen Sebelius, the savvy former Kansas governor who is secretary of Health and Human Services. She'll be the primary defender and explainer of ObamaCare, which means she will spend much of her time testifying, answering requests for information and arguing to the money she'll need for the new program.

Republicans in the House will focus not only on new laws per se, but on how they are being administered. The Obama administration's bureaucratic track record — on everything from oil spills to mortgage refinancing — won't always be easy to defend.

Meanwhile, Democrats know that unless the economy improves for all — meaning that the unemployment rate falls substantially and growing income disparities abate — sweeping legislative "accomplishments" will mean little to voters.

In the recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, only 28 percent of voters think the country is "headed in the right direction." That is the lowest percentage since President Obama was inaugurated.

Passage of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" repeal and, as it seems likely, the New START treaty, are signal accomplishments in their own right.

And it is surely true that President Obama and the outgoing Democratic Congress, as the experts say, have enacted more "consequential" legislation than any such team in 45, or perhaps 78 years.

The list, in fact, is staggering: major, not to say sweeping, new laws on health care, banking and finance, food safety, child nutrition, credit cards, pay equity, home mortgages, student loans, tobacco use and sale, home mortgages — not to mention $1.7 trillion in tax cuts and spending in the name of economic "stimulus."

Taken together — and at least in theory — these measures amount to the most aggressive expansion of federal regulatory authority in a generation. It is no wonder the Chamber of Commerce spent $100 million and turned itself into a Rovian attack machine.

Even so, the party's progressives aren't particularly impressed by much of the new legislation. The Krugmanites — columnist Paul Krugman deserves to be their namesake — argue, and often with good cause, that the new laws are timid compromises with the powerful industries they are supposed to reform.

Does anyone think that big banks — having been saved by bailouts — have now become earnest stewards of the public good? How about insurance companies? Health-care conglomerates? Mortgage lenders?

And in spite of, perhaps even because of, the tax-cut compromise he struck with Republicans, the president's standing with voters is arguably weaker now than it has been since his inauguration.

The commentariat scanned the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll the other day and tossed it after noting that the president beats both Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin in test 2010 matchups.

But Obama's own numbers are pallid. His job-approval rating (45 percent) is as low as it has been since inauguration. He had a 47 percent "very positive" rating in February 2009 — and 25 percent now. In January 2010, 37 percent of voters thought that he'd be a successful president. Last week that number was 28 percent. 

Obama still fares much better than the political parties, who are dismissed if not despised. But as a candidate and as a new arrival in Washington, he held out the hope that he could inspire a renewed appreciation for the virtues of public life and government.

It hasn't happened, which is another reason why Democrats — members of "the party of government" — aren't leaving town singing.