Has Obama peaked? No, he hasn't

Obama’s days of greatest power and popularity lie before him. But be warned: he might not do what you want with it.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 12, 2009

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Has Obama peaked? Yes, he has. By Steven Stark.

SlideshowHighlights from Obama's first year.

Barack Obama's popularity should not be judged by the day-to-day, media-driven vagaries of politics — nor by the wishful thinking of his opponents. Current Republican leaders — trying to capitalize on momentary blips, and hoping to boost optimism and activism within their diminished ranks — are nonetheless trying their best.

The Obama skeptics are fond of invoking comparisons between 2009 and 1993. That was the year that the last Democratic president took over from a Republican predecessor, and it led to dramatic GOP off-year gains the following election — in reaction, it is said, to the same liberal over-reaching we now see with Obama.

It's the wrong analogy. A more apt precedent is 1981, when Ronald Reagan was struggling with a recession in his first year in office.

Then, as now, the president had charged into office with a majority of the popular vote (unlike Bill Clinton, who won just 43 percent of the vote in 1992) — along with a wave of party gains in the House and Senate.

But by early November of 1981, according to a New York Times poll, Reagan's approval rating had dipped to 53 percent. (Obama is right around the same figure today.) Reagan's numbers continued to decline, plunging into the low 40s (and even lower by some measures), as unemployment continued to climb through his second year in office.

Democrats believed then, as Republicans contend now, that the midterm elections would be a rout for the opposition. Democrats did, in fact, gain 26 seats in the US House of Representatives in 1982, but that was due more to federal redistricting after the 1980 census than any ideological shift (and even with that, it was well short of making up the Republicans' 1980 35-seat gain). Meanwhile, the Democrats made no dent at all in the GOP's then-new Senate majority, and, though they gained governorships, lost California and failed in high-profile attempts to take Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Why, in the midst of what at the time was called the worst recession since the Great Depression, did the country not punish the ruling Republican Party? Perhaps because the country's last experience with the Democrats — the loathed malaise of the Jimmy Carter presidency — made people reluctant to turn back that clock.

Similarly, the disastrous recent record of George W. Bush and congressional Republicans now acts as a Carteresque buffer for Obama and the Democrats. Surveys show that, whatever most people think of the current holders of power, it is nothing compared with their lingering disgust with the GOP — which, it should be noted, most Americans continue to blame for the ongoing economic strife. That dynamic was missing in 1993; although George H.W. Bush was unpopular, he was not despised, and fond memories of Reagan-era prosperity were still fresh.

With unemployment likely to remain intolerably high well into 2010, Democrats in the midterm elections will probably lose some of their recent gains. But they will remain solidly in the majority in both the House and Senate, which means that, as the economy improves, they will be in a position to take the credit.

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