President Obama and his administration keep racking up the wins in Washington, but that doesn't seem to be paying off outside the beltway, particularly among independent voters. [See a slide show of the 10 keys to an Obama comeback.]
His nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court passed the Senate 63 to 37. Obama recently overcame a Senate filibuster to win congressional passage of a measure extending unemployment benefits for millions of jobless Americans. And he won approval for a bill overhauling the financial industry, trumpeted by the White House as the most comprehensive series of reforms since the New Deal. Earlier this year, Obama persuaded Congress to approve massive healthcare legislation, which he said would help millions of people. Before that, he won approval for a big economic stimulus package and bailouts for large banks, automakers General Motors and Chrysler, and many mortgage holders who were in over their heads.
Administration officials say it's an impressive list of accomplishments that shows that Obama and majority Democrats in Congress have been moving aggressively to solve the nation's problems, despite near-unanimous Republican opposition on Capitol Hill. The problem is that these legislative successes don't seem to matter very much to the voters. That's because Americans are drawing a key distinction between the acts of passing laws and other legislative activities and outcomes that visibly solve problems and bring improvements in the "real world." [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Despite upbeat White House rhetoric, most Americans aren't feeling very positive or optimistic about the future. The best example is on unemployment, which is hovering above 9 percent as a national average and is much worse in many communities. "People are enormously preoccupied with the job environment," says historian Robert Dallek. "That's what is front and center." Dallek points out that many Americans don't see that financial "reform," healthcare overhaul, or other Obama-backed measures have generated jobs, and so these policy successes in Washington haven't resonated with the wider electorate in the positive way that Obama strategists had hoped. The White House message—that the recession would have been much worse, even a "second Great Depression," without the administration's actions—hasn't gained much traction.
In the Great Depression, Dallek says, President Franklin Roosevelt made a deep and positive impression on the country when, soon after he took office in 1933, he won congressional approval for a massive federal intervention in the economy known as the New Deal. Americans in the 1930s, Dallek adds, were desperate for fundamental change guided by their leaders in Washington.
But Americans today don't seem nearly as eager for federal intervention. In fact, many are cynical about government. Polls tell the tale. Obama's job approval ratings have been weak, sinking below 50 percent, and Americans think both the Democrats and the Republicans in Congress are doing a poor job.
That adds up to an anti-incumbent mood in this November's midterm elections, which is bad news for the Democrats who are in control of Washington. "Obama loses by winning," says Doug Heye, communications director for the Republican National Committee. "Clearly, voters have reacted to what Obama has done—and not just what he's done but how he's doing it." Heye adds that the Democrats "are talking about action because they know they can't talk effectively to the American people about results." Obama promised transparency, bipartisanship, and a willingness to work with Republicans but, Heye asserts, he hasn't delivered.
The RNC spokesman says voters are particularly distressed by the Democrats' healthcare legislation, Obama's overspending, and his administration's excessive regulation. What voters want this fall are checks and balances, and they will give Republicans more power, Heye says, adding, "Voters don't like what they're seeing from Washington, which is owned lock, stock, and barrel by the Democrats."