Just about every day, the White House rolls out a new initiative or makes another argument that President Obama and majority Democrats in Congress are moving aggressively to tackle the nation's problems. In the past two weeks, the administration announced renewed efforts to pass energy and environment legislation and an immigration bill, expressed optimism about prospects for measures strengthening regulations on the financial industry, and announced a new policy expanding international partnerships for monitoring the Earth's climate. There was also the unveiling of a revamped federal website offering consumers information on everything from nutrition to wait times in airport security lines. And of course there are the constant updates of the government response to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, and the frequent claims that Obama's economic stimulus was worth the $787 billion pricetag. [See photos of the Gulf oil spill.]
But there's a problem. The country is past the point that it is impressed with action alone or with Washington happy-talk about how things will be getting better. Americans want results now, especially on the economy and the high unemployment rate. And they aren't getting them.
All this is important because June is the month when voters generally formulate their political impressions of how things are going, and then tune out for the summer. And that's why the latest polls have been considered so important by the political cognoscenti. The political environment today is almost certain to be the same this November. "Unless there's a seismic change, it's a very difficult environment for the Democrats, and they will lose tons of seats," says Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
Voters are in an ornery mood and they are likely to hold majority Democrats in Washington responsible, McInturff says, in an assessment widely shared by strategists of both major parties. Sixty-two percent of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction and only 29 percent say it's on the right track, according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Eighty-two percent are dissatisfied with the economy and 48 percent are very dissatisfied. Forty-five percent of Americans approve of Obama's job performance, a drop of 10 points from a year ago, while 48 percent disapprove. In a particular setback for Democrats, some of the least motivated voters are African-Americans, Latinos, and young people—groups that were key to Obama's 2008 victory and that kept the Democrats in control of Congress. The reason for the sour mood? "The sustained corrosive effect of a bad economy," McInturff says. Meanwhile, Republicans are extremely motivated to vote on November 2. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Obama and the Democrats are fighting back. A big part of their strategy is to issue all those statements about new initiatives and increasing rounds of federal activism. And Obama has gone on the attack. At a town hall meeting last week in Racine, Wisconsin (where the unemployment rate is about 14 percent, compared with 9.5 percent nationally), the president said Republicans are stuck in the past. "Their prescription for every challenge is pretty much the same—and I don't think I'm exaggerating here—basically, cut taxes for the wealthy, cut rules for corporations, and cut working folks loose to fend for themselves," he said. He also said House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio was out of touch when he complained recently that the new financial-industry bill amounts to "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon." A spokesman for Boehner replied that the congressman was just trying to say that Obama is too reliant on government activism. Obama also criticized Republicans, including Rep. Joe Barton of Texas for scoffing at requiring BP to create a $20 billion victims' compensation fund to assist people harmed by the oil gusher in the Gulf. "Did you all read about that?" Obama asked the crowd in Racine. "He apologized to BP that we had made them set up this fund—called it a tragedy that we had made them pay for the destruction that they've caused ... I mean, the tragedy is what the people of the Gulf are going through right now." Barton's spokesman pointed out that the congressman had already apologized. [See where Barton's campaign cash comes from.]
While this kind of wordplay may impress Washington insiders, it's not making much of a dent in public opinion. Most Americans don't pay attention to the tit-for-tat of the 24-hour news cycle. They are anxious for their lives to improve. And they are out of patience.
- See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.
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- See who gets the most from the oil industry.