"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.
If Washington's dysfunction continues, the nation may be headed for an anti-incumbent election in 2014.
Strategists for both major parties say many voters already seem inclined to "throw the bums out" in the midterm balloting, and this would jeopardize the current balance of power with Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans controlling the House. It could mean, in the end, a rebellion against the status quo in which voters send outsiders to clean up the mess, rather than relying on the veterans whose inside game has produced so little.
The reason for the sour mood is the seemingly endless gridlock and brinksmanship in Washington. The public appears to be particularly turned off by the impasse that led to the automatic budget cuts now being phased in under sequestration. Gone by the wayside is pragmatic problem solving to create jobs and solve the country's other problems, such as illegal immigration and gun violence.
President Obama has the advantage, for now. He won his bid for re-election last November and has a freer hand to do what he thinks is best, which means moving toward more government activism. He also has learned a lot about the bully pulpit during his first four years in office, and he has outfoxed and outmaneuvered the GOP in the court of public opinion in recent weeks.
Republican leaders have become the targets of massive criticism, including ridicule from within the GOP itself, for failing to come up with compelling alternatives to Obama's priorities. Only 25 percent of Americans approve of the Republican leaders' job performance in Congress, and two thirds disapprove.
But there are also danger signs for Obama. Bill McInturff, a respected Republican pollster, points out that President Obama's job-approval rating is about 50 percent today, and on the decline, according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (which McInturff helps to conduct). That's not very impressive considering that it is likely to be Obama's high point. Second-term presidents often find that their approval ratings decline after an initial post-election afterglow. More ominous, only 32 percent of Americans feel the country is headed in the right direction, while 59 percent say it's on the wrong track, representing a decline in optimism, according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. "He's got a long and difficult road ahead, and he's in a precarious position," McInturff says. "He's the president, and the economy is still in the tank. History would suggest that he ends up with the short end of the stick as to who's responsible."
McInturff says the messy budget negotiations last December resulted in a substantial drop in consumer confidence. "It's clear we have entered a new phase where the dysfunction and paralysis in Washington is having a significant and deleterious impact on how consumers feel about the overall state of the economy and their personal financial situations," he says.
And despite the rise in the stock market, the economy is still faltering for everyday people. Fifty-one percent of Americans say they are less confident about the economy improving because of the breakdown in negotiations between Obama and congressional Republicans on the budget. Thirty-one percent say the negotiations made no difference to them in assessing the economy, and only 16 percent say they are more confident.
Obama's hubris seems to be increasing. He is emphasizing proposals that are popular with his Democratic base, such as promoting same-sex marriage, controlling guns, and using the government to fight climate change. He blames Republicans for the sequester and for blocking his proposals to solve other problems. This is a coherent strategy for undermining the GOP, but not for governing effectively in the meantime.
And that's the problem. No one appears to be governing. And voters are likely to exact a price.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and followed on Facebook and Twitter.