The Elections Won't Be a Referendum on Obama

The Democrats are likely to take a beating in the fall midterm elections. Right now FiveThirtyEight projects that they will lose almost 50 seats in the House, and come close to losing the Senate as well. If that happens, pundits from across the political spectrum will lay the blame on President Obama. Obama could surely have made some smarter political choices, although as I have argued a large part of the problem was how dysfunctional the institution of the Senate has become. But in any case if Democrats do as badly as they are expected to do in the upcoming elections, it won’t be because they don’t approve of the job Obama has been doing.

It’s true that Gallup finds that slightly more people disapprove than approve of the job President Obama has been doing. But as you can see from Gallup’s interactive chart Obama’s approval rating both among the general population and among swing voters is not unusual for first-term presidents. In fact, it’s actually slightly higher than Reagan’s was at same point in his first term. More to the point, as Andrew Sullivan notes, Obama's approval rating has on average been much higher than Congress’ approval rating during his first two years in office.

What’s different about 2010, in other words, is that Americans absolutely hate Congress. Congress is never particularly popular with the American people, if only because members of Congress can’t sit in the Oval Office above the partisan fray the way the president can. But Congress under Obama has so far been less popular than under other any other president from Carter on. And the difference between between the president’s and Congress’ approval is larger than under any president since than the first President Bush. According to a recent Gallup poll, just 21% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, while 45% approve of the job Obama is doing.

Congress’ unpopularity has something to do with fact that the economy is a mess more than two years after the start of financial crisis. But it is also partly the result of a deliberate Republican strategy to make Congress under the Democrats dysfunctional and rancorous. It's a strategy that looks like it's going to work. People don’t actually like Republicans any better than they do Democrats. But because the Democrats have been the ones in charge of Congress, they’re the ones who are going to pay a price at the polls in a couple of weeks.

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