Not long ago Republicans were salivating over the prospect of making Obama a one term President. Hoping to stir up controversy within the Democratic party, some conservatives openly speculated that the Democrats would need Hillary Clinton to rescue them from Obama’s unpopularity. Just before the Midterms the Rasmussen daily tracking poll had Obama’s approval ratings below 45%, with disapproval above 55%. Worse for the President, the “strongly disapprove” was over 20 points higher than strongly approve. Obama, it appeared, had lost the magic.
On Monday Rasmussen’s poll showed Obama with 52% approval and 47% disapproving. Strongly disapprove still leads strongly approve, but only by 4 points. Other polls show Obama’s approval up near 55%, and where a month ago it was hard to find approval out polling disapproval in any poll, now all point in Obama’s direction. Many speculated that a successful State of the Union address would allow Obama to start on the road to regaining his popularity; that journey appears to have started even before tomorrow’s address.
To be sure, some of it had to do with his stellar performance in the wake of the Giffords shooting. His speech was praised by both the right and left as hitting the right, non-partisan tone. That fed into approval numbers which had been improving for the President steadily since November. Some of it can be attributed to Democrats “coming back” to the President. His low numbers were never a massive shift of opinion to the GOP; many liberal Democrats gave him failing marks for falling short of their expectations of a more partisan President. Repealing DADT, passing the new START and accomplishing quite a bit in the lame duck legislative session helped convince many that the President was bringing real change. But the shift is also due to independents giving Obama another chance. So does this mean he’s going to follow in the footsteps of Reagan and Clinton — go from a near death experience early in his first term to a cake walk re-election?
Obviously, it’s too early to tell. If the economy does not improve, if scandal erupts, or things start going really bad in Afghanistan and Iraq, the President could suffer. Yet there are reasons to think that the worst is over for Obama, at least in his first term.
One big reason is that for the next two years Obama can avoid controversy and appear “above the partisan fray” much of the time. The Republicans have the House, so there is no pressure for the Democrats to move forward on the progressive agenda. The President will not take on any more issues like health care or an economic stimulus that will create a partisan firestorm. Yet the President won’t have to actively use the veto power to stop the Republicans, since Democrats in the Senate can block anything that the President doesn’t want to deal with. The President can instead focus on what is popular with the American people, trying to “change the tone” and create compromise. If the Republicans refuse, nothing will happen, and he can say “I’m trying.”
In essence, the President can focus less on trying to bring change in policy to focusing on change in tone. He can fulfill the symbolic role of the Presidency in a manner designed to play to his positives and appear Presidential. This pushes off any chance for opposition in the primaries, and can set the Obama campaign machine up for a strong run in 2012. No campaign has ever had the success of the Obama team in 2008; it would be foolish to expect anything less than a massive and effective campaign in 2012.
The Republicans have one shot at Obama, but it’s a very risky one. They could refuse to pass a budget that doesn’t conform to their demands of fiscal responsibility. That is what the Republicans tried to do to President Clinton in 1995, and it backfired. The resulting government shutdown appeared the work of Republicans unwilling to compromise or negotiate with the President in good faith. While conservatives will disagree that the shut down was really their fault, that’s how it was perceived.
In 2011 that strategy is a long shot. First, Obama still has the Senate riding interference. Obama could start by proposing a budget to Congress that contains deficit reduction. The Republicans would say that it doesn’t go far enough, and demand greater cuts. In a show of “good cop/bad cop,” the Senate could balk, demanding that the House adhere more closely to the President’s budget request. The President himself could intervene and offer compromises that appear to be siding with the GOP House, going farther to meet the Republicans “half way” than the Senate — while reminding the GOP and the country that holding only one house, the Republicans can’t demand it be their way or no way. If the Presidents approval numbers stay reasonably high — if he remains popular — the GOP will have a hard time saying that 2010 was a mandate for them to hold firm.
This would leave the Republicans with a difficult choice. They could decide to fight this out, shutting down government, and creating a crisis which they hope will get the country on their side. But if they do that, they will find themselves risking seats in Congress and the Senate, even if it satisfies their base. They could decide to do as they did in the lame duck session and reach a compromise. That would probably be benefit the President, even if the base of the Democratic party would be upset (as would the GOP base). Finally, they could choose not to go the mattresses on this, but instead give in, saying that they will bring the issue to the public in 2012. That might be the best strategy, though if Obama has momentum, it won’t be a game changer.
The Republicans also have rifts in their party wider than those in the Democratic party. Feuding between “tea partiers” and “establishment Republicans” would only serve to weaken their message (or make it incomprehensible). The goal could ultimately be to hang on to the House and try to make inroads in the Senate rather than getting the White House in 2012. Moreover, Republican leaders have to consider that the 2016 climate within the country and the GOP might call for a far different message than it did in 2010 — and if they can guess where that will be, smart ones can position themselves well in 2012.
Simply, just as the political waves shifted towards the GOP in 2009, there are signs that 2011 is seeing a shift towards Obama and the Democrats. It likely won’t be enough to win the Democrats back the House, but the triumph felt by the GOP in November may give way to the same kind of reality check that the Democratic optimism of 2008 had to endure. The wild card, of course, is the economy. If growth and jobs start coming back, Obama will benefit greatly. If the country falls back into recession or job growth stays stagnant, Republicans will have a golden opportunity if they can field the right candidate. But right now Obama appears in the drivers’ seat, having weathered a political storm in 2010. Yet as we know, political winds can shift on a dime.