Articles

March Economic Polls Bode Ill For Democrats

March 19, 2014

Public support for President Obama is tanking on multiple fronts, dragging down his party.

Foreign policy was a relative strength for much of Mr. Obama's first term. No more. According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Mr. Obama's disapproval rating on handling foreign affairs is 53%, the highest of his presidency. That number is likely to have grown since the poll was conducted 11 days ago—before Vladimir Putin's very public humiliation of Mr. Obama's weak reaction to his takeover of Crimea.

No modern American president has been exposed as this feckless and impotent, except for perhaps Jimmy Carter. Mr. Obama will discover that as his image as a strong leader crumbles, it's nearly impossible to reconstruct. That will mean bad things for his party. Once a president is seen as weak in foreign affairs, it colors perceptions of his leadership at home.

Not that the news at home is good. In a March 9 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Mr. Obama had a 41% approval rating, 56% disapproval rating for his handling of the economy. His approval number is lower than all but eight of the 47 soundings this poll has taken since Mr. Obama's first inaugural—and his disapproval rating is worse than all but seven others since January 2009.

For context, consider that when Ronald Reagan was president in March 1986, 44% of Americans rated the economy "excellent" or "good" while 16% called it "poor," according to a Money Magazine survey conducted by ABC News. Just over seven months later, Republicans lost eight Senate seats and five House seats in the midterms.

In March 2006, when George W. Bush was president, 41% rated the economy "excellent" or "good" while 24% called it "poor" in an ABC News/Washington Post poll. Yet in that year's midterms, Republicans lost six Senate seats and 30 House seats.

The situation facing Democrats is more ominous. The March 2 ABC News/Washington Post survey reported a mere 28% rated the economy "excellent" or "good" while 28% called it "poor." Unless the Obama economy dramatically improves, it will be politically toxic for Democrats.

Democrats no longer have health care as a strength. The dreadful rollout of ObamaCare left the president with a 36% approval rating and a 59% disapproval rating for his handling of health care in a March 6 Fox News poll.

Congressional Democrats will continue to be vulnerable on ObamaCare. They are floundering, uncertain whether to (a) embrace the law with enthusiasm, as counseled by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi ; or (b) advocate a "mend it, don't end it" approach, as pushed by the White House and practiced by their candidate in the recent Florida special congressional election and by every red state Democratic incumbent senator.

These appear to be a pick-your-poison choice. Neither approach really mitigates the damage caused by ObamaCare. The only thing that could rescue Democrats is for Republican candidates to appear as advocates for the pre-ObamaCare status quo. Hopefully, there's not much of a chance of that.

Republicans also rightly sense great opportunity on the economy, believing Mr. Obama has run out of ideas that move voters. Advocating a minimum-wage increase polls well but doesn't have much traction. As for the president's focus on income inequality, it has accelerated on his watch and shorn of substantive proposals sounds like class-warfare rhetoric.

The Senate GOP, spurred in part by Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, has wisely developed a seven-point "Jobs for America" plan that includes market-based health-care reforms, attacks on bureaucracy and regulations that hinder job creation, tax simplification to generate more jobs and growth, a balanced-budget amendment, an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy, increased access to overseas markets, and modernized jobs training. The House Republican Conference has developed a similar "Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs" that also includes fostering innovation and reforming immigration.

Both plans are preliminary sketches but can be turned into legislative proposals to provide a unifying message that candidates can dramatize and personalize. Good Republican candidates will tackle the economy with similar forward-looking agendas if they want to win.

Americans will hire a party to run things when its ideas are fresh and new and fire it when they believe it's run out of ideas and has an agenda they don't like. The latter is where Democrats find themselves today.

A version of this article appeared March 20, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline March Economic Polls Bode Ill for Democrats and online at WSJ.com.

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