The most intriguing findings in the Washington Post-ABC News poll published Wednesday are the barest hints of a possible upturn for the Democrats. They suggest that, while the political climate remains tilted strongly in the direction of the Republicans, the next months will be crucial in shaping what ultimately happens in November.
The Post-ABC survey found no dramatic changes in the overall atmosphere. For that reason, Republicans are understandably bullish about the midterm elections. Americans are disgruntled and worried, they've had it with incumbents, they remain deeply divided over the new health-care law. President Obama's approval rating hasn't moved notably in months.
So from 35,000 feet, this is still an election that shapes up as a referendum on the president and his party at a time when many voters are unhappy with the state of the country and the economy. Passionate feelings and discontent are strongly on the side of the opposition, not the party in power. In midterm elections, that counts considerably. No wonder Republicans believe a takeover of the House is possible.
But closer to the ground, there are some indicators that something less seismic might occur. They include signs that Democratic rank-and-file may be feeling better about things, which could result in more energy in the base than has existed for much of the past six months. At the same time, it's clear that many people are not fully sold on the Republicans and are continuing to assess the two parties. Finally, there is some evidence that Obama has learned some lessons from a difficult first year.
The current story line for Election 2010 took shape in the period beginning last summer and running through the first month of this year. That's when Obama's approval ratings fell, and tea party activists became the symbol of discontent. It is also when the health-care battle exposed much that the public found repulsive about the legislative process. And of course, there was Scott Brown's shocking victory in Massachusetts.
Since then, other things have happened. The health-care bill, whose demise would have been devastating to the Democrats, became law (though under the most partisan of circumstances). That hasn't changed public attitudes on the measure, which remain hardened and evenly divided, but it has pushed that debate off center stage, to the relief of the White House. In its place has come financial regulatory reform, an issue where Democrats are playing offense, Republicans are playing defense and a bipartisan outcome remains possible.
Meanwhile, a number of indicators show that an economic recovery is underway, a recovery that might be stronger than anticipated. Unemployment remains stuck closer to 10 percent than the 8 percent ceiling the administration promised long ago. But other measures might give people confidence that better times are coming.
For his part, Obama appears to be warming to a battle with the opposition. His moment of truth came after the Massachusetts election, when he was faced with the question of whether to scale back on health care in hopes of attracting Republican votes and assuring passage of at least something, or going for broke in a partisan brawl. He chose to fight. Since then, the president has appeared more comfortable with a posture of confrontation, when necessary, than he was when he first took office.
In the Post-ABC poll, there were a handful of indicators that, if sustained, could change the political climate -- but only if the Democrats can find a way to keep them going.
One was that independents, for the first time since last fall, gave Obama a positive rating on his job performance. If that turns out to be more than a one-month blip, it could be significant, given the fact that independents moved sharply away from the Democrats over the first year of the administration. They aren't going to re-embrace Democrats with the enthusiasm of 2008 or 2006, but if some of them move back, that could save a few Democratic incumbents in November.
Second, the poll found that Democrats again have a double-digit lead on the question of which party people trust to deal with the country's biggest problems. That represents a modest rebound, though Democrats are still not close to the margins they enjoyed early in the administration. So there is more they need to do in the coming months to change perceptions.
The Democracy Corps, a Democratic organization, released a survey this week that carried a similar message: The overall climate hasn't changed and remains troublesome for Democrats, but there are some signs that it could.
"There's a lot of resistance to getting out of the current mindset," said Stan Greenberg, whose firm conducted the poll. "There's a lot of angry voters out there and a lot of angry independent voters."
What might be changing? Greenberg's survey found Democrats more optimistic about the direction of the country, which if carried into the fall could result in a more energized Democratic electorate than today. Overall assessments of the economy showed a brightening in attitudes.
Greenberg said Democrats have more to prove. "We have to see movement from baby steps now to bigger steps," he said. "But it seems possible that something is happening."
Republicans aren't buying the idea that the political climate is improving enough to justify Democratic optimism. They remain focused on the macro indicators, all of which tell them Republicans are heading for a big year.
Democrats have a brief window to try to reshape public attitudes about what this president is trying to do and how well he is doing it. That's why the next few months will be so important.