Obama finds some solid ground; tests still ahead

May 31, 2011 - 3:12 AM
Obama Memorial Day

President Barack Obama pays tribute to the nation's war dead during the Memorial Day ceremony at in the amphitheater of Arlington National Cemetery, Monday, May 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Six months after Republicans alarmed Democrats with a midterm election wave, President Barack Obama has shaken off the jitters and found his political footing despite sluggish economic growth and deep public anxiety about the direction of the country.

The White House now displays an air of confidence, bolstered in part by achievements such as the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. commandos and the financial success of an auto industry that Obama bailed out over the objections of many.

Obama is also benefiting from the absence of negatives. The economy, while lethargic, is growing. The private sector is creating jobs. Natural disasters, while deadly and plentiful, have not developed into governmental crises. Skyrocketing gas prices, which fed the public's economic fears, are now subsiding. And the GOP's signature budget plan, ambitious in its spending reductions, has lost its luster with the public.

"It is likely he will be re-elected, in my opinion," veteran Republican pollster Wes Anderson says.

What's more, the president appears to be enjoying the still lingering but more intangible effects of his election in 2008, a watershed for the nation. Polls show Obama with strong favorability and likability ratings even as he faces ambivalence over his handling of the presidency.

Former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen said the symbolic power of Obama's election as the first black president carries enormous good will that will be difficult for Republicans to overcome.

"Centrist voters and the ones who decide elections are still fundamentally rooting for the guy," Cullen said. "People who don't view politics in ideological terms give him the benefit of the doubt, and that is an incredible political asset to have."

Obama's inner circle, always wary of sounding too self-assured, is not hiding its optimism.

"I would rather be us than them," said one of the president's top political advisers, David Axelrod.

Pollster Andrew Kohut of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center compared Obama's place in 2011 to President Ronald Reagan's at a similar point during his first term, more than a year before he won re-election in 1984.

"They both came from an ideological wing of the party and they are perceived that way. Both were hit with real bad economies and the public turned on them," Kohut said. "Right now, Obama's ahead of where Reagan was in '83."

Still, this view of the president is a snapshot in time. Events can test presidents and sour the public mood quickly. Axelrod is quick to note that it would have been hard to predict the turmoil that erupted this spring in the Middle East and in North Africa or the Greek fiscal crisis last year that caused the stock market to plummet, and led employers to retrench.

"The things that worry me are the things I don't know," he said.

Further instability in the Arab world and increased tensions with Pakistan could create the image that Obama doesn't have control over his foreign policy. Consumer confidence has fluctuated and remains far below the levels that indicate a healthy economy; Obama has to hope those numbers maintain an upward trajectory and that private sector hiring and personal income growth do not stall.

Though the private sector has been creating jobs, public hiring by local and state governments is weak and unemployment remains high at 9 percent, a dangerous level for a president seeking re-election. Since the Great Depression, only Presidents Reagan and Gerald Ford confronted unemployment rates as high or higher at some point in their administrations. But the rate has dropped since November's 9.8 percent high. For Obama, the trend line could be as important as the unemployment rate itself.

Presidents Jimmy Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush all faced unemployment rates higher than 7.5 percent in the final months of their re-election campaigns. The rates during Carter's 1980 campaign and Bush's 1992 campaign had been on the rise. They lost. Unemployment under Reagan, however, had been declining and he won re-election in 1984.

Axelrod would like to see the declining pace set since November continue for the next six months.

"The progress has to be more than incremental," he said. "If you go from 9 to 8.9, I don't know that that qualifies. But I don't think this is ultimately an arithmetic exercise as it is one of trajectory and momentum."

Anderson, a former polling director for the Republican National Committee, predicted this election would be closer for Obama than in 2008, when he beat Sen. John McCain by 53 to 46 percent and won in 28 states. An economic nose dive, Anderson said, would present real problems for Obama.

But he added: "From a purely political standpoint, I don't think the current state of the economy is enough to beat him. Sluggish growth may be just enough for him."

Obama still needs to seal the deal with the coalition of voters who elected him in 2008. The liberal Democratic base is not as energized as the Republican conservative base that is arrayed against him. Independents and moderates who voted for him in 2008 either voted for Republicans in 2010 or stayed home.

Axelrod said many independents turned to Republicans last year because they perceived that Democrats had used their partisan edge to muscle through legislation, particularly the health care overhaul. Obama has doggedly tried to change that perception since, cutting a deal with Republicans to extend tax cuts in December and reaching another agreement to cut spending and avoid a government shutdown in April.

Axelrod insists that the Democratic base will become invigorated once the Republican alternative becomes evident.

"Elections aren't referendums," he said. "They are choices between two flesh-and-blood candidates with records and visions and approaches. And people compare and contrast those and decide."

So far, the only concrete challenge to Obama's policies has come from House Republicans who approved a budget this year written by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that aimed to reduce long-term deficits by more than $5 trillion over 10 years. The plan's proposal to fundamentally overhaul Medicare became a key issue in a special House election in New York last week, leading to a Democratic victory in a predominantly Republican district.

Senate Democrats promptly called for a vote on the House budget proposal, then defeated it while placing most Senate Republicans on record in support of it.

"Ryan's budget, including the dramatic cuts in Medicare, are now the standard position for the Republican Party and it's going to be very difficult for them to walk away from it," said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Some Republicans say it's time for their presidential candidates to propose their own policy choices.

"The challenge to Republicans is to offer an alternative that builds a majority coalition," said David Winston, a Republican strategist. "At this point, where you've heard the policy discussions occurring have not been within the Republican presidential primary but among the Republican members of Congress."

Added Kohut, the Pew pollster, "There's no single voice that people are listening to on the Republican side."