Gains in congressional approval could undermine Obama election strategy

The congressional approval rating has steadily ticked up over the past six months, and Republican leaders hope this will undermine President Obama’s plans to run against the unpopular institution.

Obama’s strategy since the end of last summer has been to paint Congress as unreasonably obstructionist and blocking practical legislation to increase employment.

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“For months, I’ve been pushing Congress to help us along by passing common-sense policies that would make a difference,” Obama said in an address to the nation a week ago.

He said lawmakers extended the payroll tax holiday but have “refused to act on most of the other ideas in my jobs plan that economists say could put a million more Americans back to work.”

Congress on Friday passed a transportation reauthorization bill combined with an extension of student loan subsidies that aides estimate would create or save an estimated 2.5 million jobs. The measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, which could make it more difficult for Obama to run against an institution he has portrayed as bogged down in partisan politics.

Brendan Buck, House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) press secretary, pounced on the White House immediately after the lower chamber passed the legislation.

“House votes 373-52 to screw up White House talking points,” he posted on Twitter.

Congress’s approval rating has nearly doubled since hitting single digits at the end of last year. Public opinion soured over the failed effort to cut the deficit, which prompted Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the nation’s credit rating, and over partisan wrangling on the payroll tax holiday.

An Associated Press/GfK poll earlier this month showed Congress with a 22 percent approval rating and a recent Gallup poll showed it with a 17 percent rating. While certainly not popular, Congress has improved its public image over the past six months.

Gallup measured Congress at 10 percent approval in February of this year.

“That’s 100 percent improvement,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said, noting, “Twenty percent is not a stellar number”.

Isakson said running against Congress will not help Obama’s reelection bid.

“Jobs and the economy are the issue of the race. Thursday’s ruling to uphold the healthcare law adds a new dynamic to the race,” he said. “Everything he did for the economy did the opposite of what he said it was going to do, like the stimulus.

“They’ve done so much of the blame game, it hasn’t worked,” he said of the president’s political strategy. “I don’t think people are buying it.”

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), chairman of the Senate Republican campaign committee, said, “It’s his inclination to blame everyone for everything.”

“I think he’s going to be running on his record — and the Supreme Court made that a lot more clear [Thursday] — something that’s deeply unpopular," he said.

Gallup tracking polls show that Obama’s approval rating improved after he took a rhetorical stand against congressional Republicans last year. The president had frustrated some Democratic lawmakers up to that point for not calling out Republican opposition more forcefully.

From mid-July 2011 to the end of January this year, Obama’s disapproval rating was higher than his approval number, according to Gallup data. But his disapproval number began to drop after he called on Republicans during a joint session of Congress in September to pass his jobs agenda.

Obama has repeatedly returned to his jobs agenda to put pressure on Republicans and to broaden responsibility for the nation’s frustratingly slow economic recovery. His approval rating has steadily improved since the end of August.

Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said Obama can still use Congress as a foil, despite its improved popularity.

“If public support increased, it would undermine Obama’s ability to run against Congress, but if it’s still in the teens, that’s not a problem because there are so many people who think Congress is dysfunctional.

“If it went up to 35 percent, it would be a different ballgame but 17 percent does not alter his strategy,” West said of the Gallup data.

He doubts, however, that Obama will be able to escape responsibility for the 8.2 percent unemployment rate and other sluggish economic indicators by pointing the finger at lawmakers.

“Voters see the president as in charge of the economy as opposed to Congress. It’s hard to run against legislators on that issue,” he said.

Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor and director of the Martin Institute at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, said Obama will still be able to run against Congress.

“You’d have to have a very dramatic rise in approval for Congress” to bar that possibility, he said.

“Congress as an institution is rarely very popular. It’s an easy and open target for this president and any president,” he said.

Harry Truman won an upset reelection in 1948 by positioning himself against what he called a “do-nothing” Republican Congress, and some analysts see Obama following the same path.

But the economy remains a problem for Obama and political experts say it will not be easy for him to shift responsibility to GOP lawmakers, who have staunchly opposed his agenda.

Ubertaccio said blaming Congress “will wash among those already inclined to support the president.”

He noted Republican opponents can argue the president “had the overwhelming majority of the legislature for the first two years and his party controls the Senate and hasn’t passed a budget.”

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