By AP Special Correspondent
updated 7/13/2010 4:47:15 PM ET 2010-07-13T20:47:15

Four months before midterm elections, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats show signs of collective battle fatigue, ducking political fights they might once have welcomed and quarreling among themselves as they confront the likelihood of majority-threatening losses this fall.

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Republicans pounce on every sign of Democratic discord, seemingly confident of a political payoff after a two-year campaign to kill whatever Democratic legislation they could while slowing the rest.

This past weekend, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs strayed across the well-defined party line when he said "there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control" of the House. There was no notification in advance to discomfited senior Democrats.

"What we are saying is it won't happen," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Tuesday, the head of the party's campaign committee laboring to minimize the impact on fundraising and morale. But by then, a Washington Post-ABC Poll showed public confidence in President Barack Obama at a new low, and that only one-quarter of those surveyed believe the economy is improving.

Republicans have had plenty of other material to work with — the administration's decision to file suit against Arizona's immigration law, the House's recent decision to skip a full-scale budget debate, and Obama bypassing the Senate and granting a recess appointment to a new director for the agency that oversees Medicare and more.

The decision to file a lawsuit challenging the Arizona law pleased critics who attack the measure as mean-spirited, racist and even unconstitutional. But several congressional Democratic officials argue privately it was aimed at helping the president in his 2012 re-election campaign and will hurt more than help the party's incumbents this fall.

There was public as well as private criticism.

Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat who won her once Republican seat in 2006, told the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that the law was both divisive and would create burdens for law enforcement agencies already stretched thin. But she quickly added she disagreed with the administration's decision to file a legal challenge.

"The irony of the lawsuit is its premise that (the state law) intrudes on the federal government's responsibility to enforce immigration laws. Had the federal government taken that responsibility seriously, neither this week's lawsuit nor the state law that prompted it would be necessary," she said.

Democratic governors voiced concerns over the weekend in a private meeting with White House officials.

Separately, the president's decision to bypass the Senate and install Dr. Donald Berwick as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid appeared designed to deny Republicans a platform for renewing charges that rationing would result from the landmark health care law approved earlier in the year.

"It's unfortunate that at a time when our nation is facing enormous challenges, many in Congress have decided to delay critical nominations for political purposes," Obama said in a written statement as he gave recess appointments to Berwick and two other nominees.

Republicans have, in fact, blocked or stalled dozens of administration appointees in the past 18 months, but this was not one of them.

Republicans said Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, turned down their request to hold a hearing on the nomination last month, at a time the panel was still reviewing Berwick's background. The Montana Democrat subsequently issued a statement mildly critical of Obama, saying, "Senate confirmation of presidential appointees is an essential process prescribed by the Constitution that serves as a check on executive power."

Republicans reacted predictably, in rhetoric seemingly aimed at their own political base.

"What is this administration trying to hide?" Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., asked during a speech Tuesday in the Senate.

Answering his own question, he quoted Berwick: "The decision is not whether or not we will ration care. The decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open." The Harvard professor, he said, is Obama's "health care rationing czar."

Across the Capitol, House Democrats decided weeks ago against drafting a full-scale budget to guide spending and tax decisions for the next several years, the first time in decades either party has flinched from the task. Republicans gleefully recirculated criticism that Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., hurled against them when the two houses failed to produce a compromise plan in 2006: "If you can't budget, you can't govern."

The Democratic leadership opted for a one-year approach, saying they would reduce spending below Obama's recommendations. Their calculation was that the alternative would expose deep fault lines among the rank and file and risk a humiliating legislative defeat in an election year.

On one side of the divide are liberals in safe seats, generally willing to raise spending to stimulate the economy, often also ready to raise taxes, and less worried about voter anger over rising deficits.

On the other are moderates and conservatives in swing seats, far more concerned about soaring deficits, yet loath to raise taxes and trigger opposition from deep-pocketed business groups this fall.

There are more of the first, but not enough to enact Obama's ambitious agenda.

Many in the second group were elected for the first time in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats gained a total of 53 House seats, and now seek re-election for the first time in a difficult political environment.

"Democrats now hold almost every swing district in the country as a result of our successes in 2006 and 2008," said Van Hollen.

Not for long, judging by the Democrats' own actions.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Poll: Obama’s approval rating low

  1. Closed captioning of: Poll: Obama’s approval rating low

    >>> and troubling numbers today for the white house . the latest " washington post " abc news poll. the president's approval rating now at the lowest ever for this poll. nearly six in ten people say they lack confidence that the president can make the right decisions. and a majority disapprove of the way president obama is handling the economy. chuck todd , nbc 's chief white house correspondent and co-host of "the daily rundown" and kelly o'donnell, nbc 's capitol hill correspondent, joining us now, both. chuck, first to you. what is the stress level at the white house today over this poll?

    >> reporter: well, you know what, this is not new as far as these numbers are concerned. this matches a lot of other polls. the trend lines are in the same direction. the numbers are a little different. our job in the nbc /" wall street journal " poll was at 45%. it was our all-time low. this one for "the washington post "/abc, is their all-time low. so the trend line is going in the same directions with the same issues driving these numbers. it's the economy. the majority's disapproving of the economy. if there is a "silver lining," and that's probably a little bit optimistic, even painting it that way, that the folks here at the white house take from this poll, is the fact that in this idea of how much confidence do you have in president obama versus the republicans versus the democrats , to make the right decisions, that while majorities don't have a lot of confidence in any of those three entities at this point, that the republicans fair worse than the other two, as well. so, this idea of trying to create a choice election, which we've heard the president do, we've heard other democrats try to say -- there potentially is an opportunity for them to sell this message because the public already is skeptical -- is as skeptical of the republicans right now as they are of president obama .

    >> and certainly, they're skeptical of members of congress, democrats and republicans , but there are more democrats than republicans . so, kelly , this is not good news for incumbents going into the midterm elections.

    >> reporter: incumbents have had the most uncomfortable season in a long time, maybe a summer of our discontent , if i can borrow from steinbeck for a moment. they're really feeling it. and it's all about how they position themselves, wanting to go against washington, and yet, all of the incumbents being to some degree a part of washington. hard argument to make. certainly looking at the president's changing fortunes and polls for democrats , that poses some difficulty. and trying to position some of these tough issues with the president praising democrats and a handful of republicans today about financial regulatory reform . is that an issue that will really connect with voters in different parts of the country when, as we've talked about, andrea , votes on things like bailouts have at times been in a moment viewed as the expedient, necessary thing, but over time became less politically attractive. so, it is challenging. the environment's tough. everybody knows that. and it seems each day we get new pieces of evidence that just make that more clear and more challenging for those who are on the ballot.

    >> of course, one good piece of news for the white house is that they have picked up three republican votes. the president talked about that for financial regulation .

    >> three republican senators have put politics and partisanship aside to support this reform, and i'm grateful for their decision as well as all the democrats who have worked so hard to make this reform a reality.

    >> chuck todd , does the white house think that once this is passed and harry reid is now saying that there will be a vote this week, does the white house think that this, because of the unpopularity of wall street , will be immediately popular? will this be a good campaign peg for them?

    >> reporter: well, i don't think they think it's going to be a bad campaign peg, but frankly, none of these legislative achievements for this white house have served as some sort of booster shot to his approval rating or the public's perception of the direction and the economy, direction of the country. but certainly, when you look at our own polling, which showed 62% wanted more regulation on wall street , they're certainly not going to be against this bill. they wanted something to be done. maybe they, you know, over time , we'll see how this bill plays out. there's always unintended consequences to any time there's an attempt to legislate money by the government, whether money in politics or money on wall street . and of course, we really won't know for a few years how effective these reforms really are.

    >> and we're talking, of course, about olympia snowe and scott brown and susan collins . kelly and chuck, we've been trying to figure out who is going to replace peter orszag , and chuck, you were doing some work on that last week, and the hints were that you were picking up was that it was going to be a big figure, someone from within the administration. this is the president today on bringing jack lew back into the white house and into omb.

    >> when jack left that post at the end of the clinton administration , he handed the next administration a record $236 billion budget surplus . the day i took office eight years later, america faced a record $1.3 trillion deficit.

    >> i have to tell you, hillary clinton is going to miss jack lew a great deal, because he has been in a position that had not been filled -- deputy secretary of state for management -- and he was really making the place work, and big challenges as the civilian side tries to step up to filling in in both iraq and afghanistan with a much bigger diplomatic and civilian presence.

    >> reporter: well, and let's also be clear, andrea , nobody -- this budget director job, whether now, when there's massive deficits or even at the time when jack lew had it the first time -- nobody ever wants to do a second tour of duty when it comes to the budget director. you know, it's always one of the -- ask leon panetta , ask these folks. it's an extremely difficult job. so, the fact -- there's no doubt that he was probably dragged kicking and screaming into the job, but considering the circumstance, i can tell you, folks inside of the west wing want to be able to send this message that they want to be taken seriously on the deficit, on this argument that's going to take place, a political argument . and andrea , we know the first six months of 2011 , whether republicans are in charge of congress or not, is going to be a big debate in this country about what to do with the deficit and the debt. and they wanted to have a seasoned hand, and they believe they have one.

    >> and of course, chuck and kelly , they can point to jack lew and say, he was in charge of surpluses. that's going to be a pretty good argument, kelly , briefly, when you go back to campaigning out there for these guys.

    >> reporter: and when the president's been criticized for always talking about the most previous administration, the bush administration , which today he did in sort of polite tones and on the trail gets little tougher, to be able to go back yet one more and go back to the clinton years when a surplus was something democrats could be proud about. that certainly helps him to use the force of history in a way that is really in his favor and talking about trying to get a tighter control when that seems to really resonate with the public now, even at a time when there are a lot of unanswered government spending that people want to have job stimulation but are so uncomfortable about where things are headed. so, that gives the white house some good news to tack on, on jack lew 's resume.

    >> kelly o'donnell and chuck todd . thank you very much. and of course, watch chuck and savannah guthrie weekday mornings at 9:00 eastern on "the daily

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