President Obama started this year in precarious shape politically. Things have gotten worse, at least according to the Washington Post/ABC News poll released Sunday and The Wall Street Journal/NBC survey released Wednesday. They are setting off alarm bells for Democrats—and for good reasons.
The Washington Post/ABC News poll—with an 11-point Democratic advantage in its sample—found President Obama's job approval at a record low of 41%. In the Journal/NBC poll, 44% approved of the job Mr. Obama is doing, three points above his low last October.
In isolation, these numbers are troubling for Democrats running in the lousy political environment the president's actions and policies have helped create. But the numbers are even worse when put in context. Many key measures of the president's and Democrats' performance are lower than they were at this point in 2010—and worse than they were just before the 2010-midterm elections.
For example, compared with the 41% in the Washington Post/ABC News poll who approve of Mr. Obama's handling of his job as president, 54% approved in the organizations' April 25, 2010, survey while 50% approved in their Oct. 28, 2010, survey.
The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll had similar findings: Compared with the 44% who approve of Mr. Obama's handling of his job as president in Wednesday's poll, 50% approved in The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll of May 11, 2010, and 45% approved in their Oct. 30, 2010, survey.
The Gallup organization found a similar pattern. On Wednesday, it had the president's job approval at 43%; at the end of April 2010 it was 49% and in early November 2010, 44%.
On major issues, the president's ratings have also dropped. Consider the economy. In the Washington Post/ABC News poll, just 42% approve of Mr. Obama's handling of the economy today. By comparison, 44% approved in the organizations' Oct. 3, 2010, survey, the last time the question was asked before that year's midterm election.
These poor numbers have rubbed off on Democrats generally. When respondents were asked which party they trust more to do a better job handling the economy, 41% picked Democrats in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. That's lower than the 44% who picked Democrats in the organizations' October 2010 survey. When asked which party they trust more to do a better job handling health care, 43% picked Democrats in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll; in the October 2010 survey, 46% picked Democrats.
Forty-five percent of Americans in the Washington Post/ABC News poll say they intend to vote for Democratic candidates this fall, compared with 44% who say they'll vote for Republicans. Again, context matters: Democrats led by five points on this question in the October 2010 Washington Post/ABC News poll, shortly before the Republicans' smashing midterm victories.
Here's the most telling data point: The Washington Post/ABC News poll found in April that 53% of Americans believe it is more important to have Republicans in charge of Congress to check the president's policies, while only 39% believe it is more important to have Democrats in charge to help support Mr. Obama's policies. That 39% is the same low number seen before the 2010 midterm.
Given that Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party are in the same or worse shape they were in before suffering the 2010 blowout, the question arises: Can the president recover significantly before the fall? History suggests that's unlikely.
Gallup's records since World War II show that Dwight Eisenhower, in 1958, was the only president to see his job approval rise (outside the margin of error) between the spring and fall of his second midterm. Even then, Eisenhower's fellow Republicans still lost 48 House seats and 13 Senate seats that election.
Desperate to alter the terrible landscape, President Obama is increasingly focusing on issues meant to galvanize the Democratic base, including the minimum wage, equal pay and campus sexual assaults (all prominently featured on the White House website this week). He is trying to increase the intensity of interest from his party's left wing, hoping to boost turnout in the fall.
Republicans will help Mr. Obama if they react to his bad poll numbers by picking the safe path—that of keeping their fire focused on the president's shortcomings, instead of also offering a popular governing agenda equal to the economic and other challenges faced by millions of Americans, especially those in the middle class. The Republican Party is the minority party, which means that this election is precisely the time for the GOP to move beyond obstructionism and show that it has the answers Americans want.
A version of this article appeared May 1, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline What Obama's Dropping Numbers Mean and online at WSJ.com.