President Obama’s job approval numbers fell to a new low Tuesday as the White House struggles to convince voters it is leading the economy out of recession.
Unemployment stands at 9.5 percent but is widely expected to rise in the coming months, starting with the monthly report for July, set for release on Friday.
So far that argument has fallen flat with voters, judging from polls, but political strategists say the administration has few options for changing its message.
“It’s a millstone around Democrats’ necks, and there’s not a lot they can do about it,” Cook Political Report author Charlie Cook said of the economy.
The White House awoke Tuesday to dismal numbers from USA Today and Gallup, which found only 41 percent of those surveyed approve of Obama’s job performance.
Such numbers are trouble for House and Senate Democrats, because low presidential approval ratings are generally disastrous for the president’s party in a midterm election. President Clinton hit 37 percent, the low for his presidency, in June 1993, according to Gallup’s poll. A few months later, Democrats lost the House and Senate.
Cook’s most recent projection is that Republicans will pick up between 32 and 42 seats in the House this fall. The GOP needs to win 39 seats and lose none to win back the majority.
Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton White House, said Obama needs to offer a more compelling narrative about his agenda that will convince voters there is a strategy in place to improve their lives. Such a strategy will overcome even unemployment numbers, he said.
“Unemployment is important, but more broadly, President Obama has to offer the country a compelling and consistent narrative for his agenda,” Simmons said.
“The Clinton presidency was about ‘the economy, stupid,’ and George W. Bush’s was about the ‘war on terror.’ Until we know the overarching strategy of this White House for our country, it is hard for the public to judge the merits of individual policies.”
The White House has tried to tout good news in the economy.
On Friday, Obama visited GM and Chrysler auto plants in Michigan to highlight a strengthened U.S. auto industry, which the administration said has added 55,000 jobs in the last year. Obama also made the auto industry the centerpiece of his weekly address and criticized GOP critics who had opposed the industry bailout.
In a speech to party donors on Monday, Obama looked to rally his base by arguing that the economy was expanding under his policies after contracting in the final months of the Bush presidency.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged Tuesday that Obama’s approval rating is being dented by high unemployment, even as he said the president hopes voters will look at his entire record.
That should include the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, as well as the economy, Gibbs said.
“Whether it’s adding jobs in the auto industry, whether it’s taking 94,000 soldiers out of Iraq, I think that the president only hopes that people look at what he’s done and base their conclusions off that,” Gibbs said.
The White House’s theme that the economy would be worse if Obama had not taken the steps he has is thin gruel, but Democrats’ options are limited, according to Cook.
“They’ve got to say something,” Cook said. “It may not be the most effective argument, but it may be the only argument they have.”
Larry Berman, a professor of political science and expert on the presidency at the University of California-Davis, said Obama’s theme will not get through to people when the unemployment rate nears 10 percent.
“People aren’t buying it, and that’s the disconnect,” Berman said.