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Obama's last chance to repair the breach

This is his State of the Union speech, given five months ahead of schedule by a White House justifiably panicked by polling data that indicates Obama’s credibility on job creation has cratered.
/ Source: National Journal

This is Obama’s last chance to alter the economic debate with congressional Republicans. This is his State of the Union speech, given five months ahead of schedule by a White House justifiably panicked by polling data that indicates Obama’s credibility on job creation has cratered — and with it his attachment to key reelection constituencies.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows 73 percent of respondents believe the country is on the “wrong track,” the highest number in Obama’s presidency. That number is within striking distance of the 78 percent registered in mid-October 2008, when the country was reeling from the financial meltdown and Obama was on the cusp of winning the presidency. The poll’s wrong-track number has jumped 23 points since May, a sign of a potentially irreversible mood shift. What’s more, the poll shows Obama has hit new lows on the economy. Thirty-seven percent approve of his performance, while 59 percent disapprove.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll found similar sentiments. But answers to one question buried in that poll might be the most telling: 47 percent said Obama’s new economic program would have “no effect.” If that wasn’t bad enough, twice as many believe his plan would make matters worse than believe it will make them better — 34 percent to 17 percent.

Beneath these gloomy economic numbers, at the national level and in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Obama this summer has lost considerable ground (10 to 16 points) with women, Hispanics, voters 18-29, voters with postgraduate or bachelor’s degrees, and those earning $75,000 a year or more.

These groups had been among the most stubbornly loyal of Obama’s 2008 coalition. If Obama doesn’t win them back, a second term appears unlikely. Only two presidents in American history, James Madison in 1812 and Andrew Jackson in 1832, have won reelection with a popular vote percentage lower than his first election. Reelected presidents tend to win a higher percentage of votes the second time around. Obama won 52.9 percent of the popular vote. Can he win that big again? It is increasingly difficult to find a Democrat willing to predict yes. Of course, Obama can win with less. But if he does, he’ll be only the third president in history and the first in the modern era to pull it off.

Republicans sense Obama is vulnerable, but their poll numbers — at least on the surface — are lousy too. The NBC/WSJ poll pegged Congress’s disapproval rating at 82 percent and its approval rating at 13 percent. The Post/ABC poll found only 28 percent approve (and only 7 percent strongly) of the job “Republicans in Congress are doing,” while 68 percent disapproved (44 percent strongly). This disapproval rating is 5 points higher than in mid-October 2006, just before the GOP was bounced out of power in Congress. What’s more, a late-August Fox News Poll showed 60 percent blamed “lawmakers in Washington who are unwilling to compromise” for America’s current economic woes (46 percent blamed President George W. Bush and 28 percent blamed Obama).

Unlike Obama, Republicans can find a glimmer of hope in other data. For example, the NBC/WSJ poll found 47 percent favored a GOP-run Congress, to 41 percent preferring that Democrats run Congress — the highest GOP preference measured since 1997. Also, the poll found 42 percent said their House member deserved reelection, while 47 percent said they preferred “a new person.” While 42 percent is no cause for celebration, it’s the highest the poll has measured since June 2006 and 3 points higher than polls taken before the 1994 and 2006 elections that knocked the incumbent party out of power in the House. Lastly, the GOP House has been strongly associated with the tea party or, at least, tea party-inspired activism. The NBC/WSJ poll found that in August, 28 percent had a positive impression of the tea party, compared with 29 percent who said that in January (negative impressions rose from 38 percent in January to 43 percent in August). And 27 percent of the poll’s respondents in August said they supported the tea party — exactly the same percentage found in the January survey.

That makes Obama’s task on Thursday infinitely harder. He must change the behavior of key constituencies who’ve grown estranged. Along the way, he must rebuild alliances with moderates and independents that strayed months ago. Only then can he create public pressure that will change GOP calculations about the political price of opposition.

So a speech about jobs isn’t about jobs. It’s about one job — behavior modification, wooing what thus far has been an obstructionist GOP with policies that both parties can embrace. If he succeeds, Obama will have a good chance of saving at least one job: his.

The article, "Last Chance to Repair the Breach," first appeared in the National Journal.