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Obama's Job Approval and the Midterm Elections

The president's popularity doesn't guarantee a good night for the Democrats.

12:02 PM, Feb 4, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Obama's State of the Union Address and his outreach to Republicans has led to a slight bump in his job approval rating. Obama is at 49 percent in the latest Rasmussen Reports daily surveyIn Gallup Daily Tracking, Obama is now once again above 50 percent.

Obama's Job Approval and the Midterm Elections

This is one reason Republicans should heed Stuart Rothenberg's warning not to become overconfident (link is subscribers only). Obviously, no one has any idea how long the bump will last. Still, when you study midterm elections, the rule tends to be that approval rating reigns supreme. In 1982, 1994, and 2006, the president's approval rating was in the low forties. The 1982 election saw major Democratic gains; 1994 and 2006 saw the out-party win Congress. For the 2010 Republicans to do the same -- something that prevailing wisdom now considers a possibility -- Obama's job approval would have to fall farther than it already has.

Or maybe not. In Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, Obama's approval rating was just slightly under 50 percent or higher even as his favored candidates lost high profile elections. Obama may be the exception that proves the rule of presidential job approval and midterms. He may be the exception because he receives an enormous amount of goodwill from the American public. Even as the electorate votes against his agenda and his party, it tends to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Obama won the presidency with 53 percent of the vote. Today's 50-percent number means he has lost all of the McCain voters and some of his own vote, as well. His biggest worry is holding on to his remaining independent and Democratic supporters. Even if he achieves this, however, Democrats are still likely to get shellacked in November.

Why? The collapse of Obama's first-year agenda has led to a deficit of enthusiasm among partisan Democrats. And Republicans, conservative-leaning independents, and Tea Party activists are full of energy and ready to swarm the polls. No amount of presidential pivoting will stop them.

Most important, the elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts showed that the Obama coalition was more personal than programmatic. That is, Obama's most fervent supporters leave their homes to vote for him alone, not necessarily for his fellow Democrats and the broader liberal agenda. And the president will not be on the ballot this November. Low Democratic turnout, Republicans on Red Bull, and a midterm election year all spell trouble for the majority party.

Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts scrambled American politics, but it may also have slightly helped Obama. It ended the Democratic health care bill, the source of so much opposition to the White House. It forced the president to change his tone on government spending -- and even if his rhetoric is substance-free, independents will like what they hear. It led to the White House's outreach to Republicans, which the public also appreciates.

Obama is slowly taking steps to repair his reputation. He has lowered his sights -- $100 billion for jobs does not constitute a "new foundation." He is returning to the themes of bipartisanship and civility on which he campaigned. As a result, he may be able to retain majority approval. The public may begin to differentiate between Obama and the Democratic Congress. That would bolster the president's position, at least until the next political earthquake. But it still might not be enough to save Pelosi and Reid.

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