President’s ally: Expectations were set too high after Obama's 2008 election

President Obama is suffering from expectations set too high by the historic presidential election of 2008, one of his closest allies in the Senate said Thursday.

In an interview with The Hill, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) blamed unrealistic expectations for Obama’s dismal poll numbers, which have Democrats worried about a defeat at the polls in November’s midterm elections.

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 “The bar for change was set inordinately high by the tone of the presidential campaign,” said McCaskill, an early supporter of Obama’s who endorsed him over then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in January 2008.

Obama’s long-running primary battle with Clinton captivated Democrats across the country, who rallied to Obama’s message of change. Turnout for the general election was the highest among eligible voters since 1968.

McCaskill said that Obama would have had a tough time pleasing the public no matter the economic situation, but that a collapse in the economy magnified Obama’s problems by sending unemployment to new highs and damaging the nation’s fiscal health.

She also said Republicans had done a “very good job” in attacking Democrats by portraying them as a party of “big government.”

“Expectations were so high that if there had not been a complete economic meltdown, it would have been hard,” she said. “But you add to that mix this incredible implosion of the economy … and the minority party did a very good job of messaging ‘big government.’ ”

A Gallup poll this week pegged Obama’s job approval rating at 44 percent, while a survey in The Washington Post suggested Republicans have a chance at winning back the House this fall.

McCaskill said Obama could not have realized how bad the nation’s fiscal health was before the final months of his general-election battle with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the GOP candidate for president.

“I was pretty involved in the presidential campaign, and I don’t think anybody realized there was the fiscal crisis there was until the crisis was upon us,” she said. “I don’t think anybody had an inkling of how bad it was until September.”

The George W. Bush administration asked Congress to authorize a $700 billion Wall Street rescue package in September 2008. The package was approved in October, and members of both parties have suffered electoral blows because of votes in favor of the bailout.

McCaskill said Obama came to Washington wanting to change the way things are done, but ran into an opposition party determined to build itself up by tearing him down.

“His tone was that he wanted to change the way things work in Washington by working across the aisle. The bad news about that, as sincere as he was, is that guess who can defeat that? The people who won’t work across the aisle,” she said.

“When your opposition has the unique ability to make you fail at what you would like to do, because they don’t want to participate in a meaningful way, it makes it really, really hard.”

McCaskill said congressional Democrats can recover from their polling lows by adopting the Republican strategy of sticking to simple themes.

McCaskill said congressional Republicans nearly defeated healthcare reform, for instance, because their simple messages of opposition resonated often more effectively with voters than the complex reasons why reform was necessary.

“ ‘No’ is simple. It’s the other side that’s hard. And it’s not as interesting as the fight, and that’s what ends up getting covered [by media],” McCaskill said.

“It’s harder, when you’re trying to govern and do big, hard, complicated public policy questions, to communicate in a way that’s easily consumable by the public — especially with the way the media is today.”

McCaskill has taken on a fight to reform Senate rules to prohibit the use of secret holds on legislation, a process by which any one senator can anonymously bar a bill or a nomination.

She has collected 69 signatures on a petition she plans to send to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — only 67 votes are necessary to adopt the change — and said she hopes for an initial vote on the idea before the Senate recesses for a month on Aug. 6.