By Justin Sink
It’s been more than a year since President Obama saw his approval rating hit 50 percent, and his still-souring numbers have Democrats fretting about his toxic effect in November.
Party strategists say the solution is for the White House to shake up a messaging campaign that’s grown stagnant if he hopes to rebuild his flagging approval rating before the midterm elections.
The botched rollout of ObamaCare, the government shutdown, an ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the fading glow of his reelection have each taken their toll on the president’s ratings, leaving Obama mired in the low 40s.
That’s an especially troubling sign for the White House. A president above 50 percent approval has traditionally been able to set the agenda, exert political capital, and help his party in down-ballot elections. But if numbers slip underwater, as they have for Obama, perceptions that the president is a drag on the party grow.
“Presidential popularity in off-year elections is absolutely critical,” said Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “You get presidents with numbers in low 40s or, heaven forbid, the 30s, and things aren’t good for the November elections.”
A Washington Post/ABC News poll earlier this week putting the president’s approval at a mere 41 percent has only intensified worries. Plus, a majority of respondents said they wanted to see GOP control of Congress to check the president’s agenda.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday offered marginally better news, pegging Obama’s job approval rating at 44 percent. For the first time since October, that number was more positive than negative, with 41 percent of respondents saying they disapproved. But the survey gave Obama only 42 percent approval for his handling of the economy and a 38 percent rating on foreign policy.
Discouraging economic numbers released Wednesday pegging first quarter growth at only 0.1 percent will only heighten Obama’s challenge.
Democrats believe the president needs to sharpen his message and shift policy strategies if his party is going to hold the Senate.
They say the White House needs to do a better job of drawing contrasts with Republicans, more vocally defend ObamaCare and seek some sort of legislative accomplishment that could demonstrate leadership ahead of the midterms.
“The challenge for the White House is [that] I’m not sure what he is saying is different from four or five years ago,” said one senior Democratic strategist. “If all you’re saying is the same thing with a little different gravy on it, you shouldn’t expect people to change.”
The White House had hoped that a staff shake-up over the holidays — which saw the return of Washington veterans John Podesta and Phil Schiliro, as well as the promotion of Katie Beirne Fallon, a former aide to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to legislative affairs director — would help the president break through Washington gridlock and inspire a rally at the polls.
There’s some indication the White House is on the same page, as they’ve shifted into a more combative crouch.
On Monday, Vice President Biden delivered a stinging indictment of the budget offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). And on Wednesday, President Obama lectured Senate Republicans for voting down his proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.
“If there’s any good news here, it’s that Republicans in Congress don’t get the last word on this issue or any issue,” Obama said. “You do, the American people, the voters.”
Democrats think drawing those types of sharp contrasts will be crucial to November success while also building on the work the president has already done promoting his economic agenda.
Doug Thornell, a veteran Democratic strategist, pointed to the Ryan budget, saying it provides a “gold mine” for the White House to attack GOP budget priorities, particularly its changes to Medicare.
“Having the White House weigh in and talk about it helps keep it front and center — it’s crucial for Dems to stay on offense, keep throwing punches and keep Republicans on the ropes. The Ryan budget helps them do this,” Thornell said.
Biden framed his speech on Monday as “basically our first comment on the debate that will be ensuing over the next several months into the election” — an indication that the White House is hopeful they can make the midterms an argument over economic priorities.
Strategists also believe the White House should change posture on the topic Republicans will zero in on this campaign season: ObamaCare.
“I think the other side overreached and overstepped with stories that are wrong, numbers that are wrong, and I think the White House needs to fight back on ObamaCare,” Fenn said.
Democrats have been particularly emboldened by former President Bill Clinton’s zeal on healthcare. Last month, he encouraged Democrats to more forcefully defend the law, and on Wednesday, he blasted the media for unfairly covering its implementation.
Other Democrats say that, if the president hopes to regain his stature in the polls, he needs to address persistent questions about his leadership style and relationship with Congress. To do that, they argue the president should seek some sort of legislative accomplishment that shows he can make a divided Congress work, even if it means compromising on policy priorities.
Right now, some think the most likely one could be on the Keystone XL pipeline, which most centrist Democrats back, but the White House blocked earlier this year.
“It doesn’t matter that Republicans are worse, or more partisan, because there’s one simple truth — Americans look to the president to lead. It’s the only path that is going to shake things up,” said one strategist. “We’ve got to figure out a bipartisan initiative, force Republicans to sit down at the table.”
But, “that also means we have to give on something we don’t want to,” the Democrat added.