Democrats must work to avoid '94 repeat

“If the 2010 election were held now it would look like 1994,” he told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Voters are angry about the economy and the Democrats’ infighting in Congress, Greenberg said. “Right now they are just interested in punishing Democrats for not getting the job done, and in some cases getting it done badly. They [are] relishing an opportunity to bloody the Democrats.”

But he added there is hope for Dems. He said even though the Democratic Party was at a “low point” it should recover by November.

“Healthcare was totally a six month debate among Democrats – debating each other, making special deals and [being] divided and failing,” he said. “We’ll never be given six months of an ugly, congressional inconclusive battle for the country to watch.”

During the midterm election in 1994, Republicans won sweeping control of the House and Senate. Greenberg said he didn’t think that the 2010 elections would have a similar outcome.

"[1994] wasn’t just a bad year. This was a year in which the Democrats dramatically played out their divisions, dramatically played out their fractiousness, their incompetence. It was so many things – presidential leadership, congressional melodrama,” the former advisor to President Clinton said.

Another difference between the two cycles is how voters perceive the GOP, he noted.

In 1994, congressional opposition led by Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole was creating an “improved perception of the Republican Party,” Greenberg said. “As they opposed [Clinton], their numbers went up.”

Republicans today don’t enjoy the same favorable perception, Greenberg said.

The GOP led in a recent Generic Congressional Ballot survey by Rasmussen Reports, but were still under 50 percent support. And only 8 percent of respondents would reelect incumbent lawmakers, according to a February CBS News/New York Times poll. The 8 percent figure was the lowest support incumbents have received since the poll started asking the question in 1992.
The same poll found that 75 percent disapproved of the job Congress is doing while only 15 percent approved of its job performance.

Also on Wednesday, the Obama administration trumpeted the success of the stimulus program, but Greenberg warned that could be a mistake.

“Clinton was desperate in 1994 to talk about how well the economy was doing, and while the unemployment rate really was going down, people did not perceive it,” Greenberg said. “He was trying to get credit for something while people were still suffering, people punished him for that.”

Calibrating a president’s language is difficult, he added. “People are very resistant to leaders trumpeting their performance on the economy before there’s some change that affects their lives.”

The White House released a Recovery Act “By the Numbers” sheet, claiming the stimulus “is already responsible for as many as 2.4 million jobs through the end of 2009” and “in the fourth quarter of 2009, the economy grew 5.7 percent” thanks to the stimulus.

"Our work is far from over, but we have rescued this economy from the worst of this crisis," Obama said.

The Democrats could avoid a repeat of 1994 if the economy improves, Greenberg said.

Obama “could easily have an approval rating 10-points higher than what President Clinton had” going into the 1994, he noted.

-- Sam Youngman contributed to this report.