The Republican Party seems to be gaining some traction in attacking President Obama's agenda and pulling him down a peg or two in public esteem.
This contrasts with the GOP's often ineffective and flailing performance during the first phase of Obama's administration. The lack of a unified message created a sense of conservative drift and confusion. And it didn't help that the party appeared too closely tethered to voices from the past, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and to the abrasive, hard-line ideologues of today, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh.
But now it looks as if the GOP has gotten its act together, at least in terms of public relations, playing upon public doubts about Obama's policies. Its new strategy seems to be based not on a compelling alternative to Obama's agenda but on the fact that many Americans are increasingly nervous about Obama's big-spending, activist-government policies. And it has also been spurred by the fact that Obama's ballyhooed $787 billion stimulus package has failed to end the recession or stop unemployment's upward spiral. The national jobless rate is expected to rise to 10 or 11 percent later this year and is already there in politically pivotal states such as Michigan and Ohio.
All this has cooled the public's enthusiasm for both Obama and his policies. The latest Gallup/USA Today poll finds that 55 percent of Americans now approve of Obama's job performance, down from 61 percent in May. Only 47 percent approve of his handling of the economy while 49 percent disapprove, a deterioration from 55 percent approval and 42 percent disapproval in May. A new Politico/Public Strategies poll found that 54 percent of Americans trust Obama to find the right solutions to America's problems, while 43 percent have little or no trust in him. That's down from a 66-to-31 spread in March. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says part of the problem is that Obama is trying to achieve big, challenging goals, such as overhauling healthcare, making him a convenient target for naysayers. "There is an industry in this town that by definition has to be bleak," Gibbs argues.
But Republican leaders say their attacks are gradually paying off. Even though their party's poll numbers remain weak, GOP strategists argue that they are undermining Obama's popularity and the credibility of Democratic ideas, which they see as a precursor of a Republican comeback. So GOP-ers continue to drive home their points daily. They say that Obama's policies are failing, that he is using discredited liberal approaches, and that he is digging the economy into an ever deeper ditch with overspending, massive deficits, and a meddlesome federal government. "Not only has the stimulus not worked and the economy not been rescued, [but] the president continues to promote policies that will create more unemployment in America," House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said in a speech to the House last week. Citing figures he said came from Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, he argued that the Democrats' health plan, which he called a "government takeover of healthcare," would cost 5 million more Americans their jobs.
Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina recently told a conservative group that if the GOP can stop Obama's healthcare overhaul, "it will be his Waterloo. It will break him." And Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele blasted the healthcare plan in a National Press Club speech last week as "too much, too fast, too soon." Steele's RNC also launched a new Web commercial that criticizes Obama for pushing "the biggest spending spree in our nation's history." And 90 minutes after the president's prime-time news conference, Steele sent an E-mail solicitation to Republicans that declared, "Barack Obama's risky experiments must be stopped."
Such appeals, and the tough Republican approach, seem to be working, as GOP coffers are bulging. The RNC reported raising $8.9 million and having $23.7 million overall in the bank at the end of June, while the Democratic National Committee raised $6.8 million and had only $13 million total.
"Obama is treading water on personal attributes, and now you have a real intense disapproval of the president's policies," says a senior GOP strategist who advised a presidential candidate last year. "And hundreds of thousands of jobs are being lost each month." He argues that until Obama shows clear economic results, his slide will intensify—with more than a little nudging from the GOP.