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Should Obama Run Against Congress?

Congress’ job approval stinks. Everyone agrees about that.

It really doesn’t matter whether Congress’ job approval is 12 percent (last week’s CBS News/New York Times poll), 13 percent (August’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey) or 15 percent (recent Gallup and CNN polling).

Running against Congress seems like a potentially fruitful strategy for President Barack Obama, especially because the recent CBS News/New York Times survey found that Republicans in Congress have a lower approval than Democrats in Congress, 19 percent compared with 28 percent.

Democratic consultants and strategists I have talked with recently don’t have any easy answers for the White House in trying to improve the president’s uncertain prospects for a second term. But most of them say that running against Congressional Republicans probably is what Obama can and should do, at least until he has another Republican target.

But not all poll numbers are equally significant in explaining voter behavior, and Congress’ low standing with the public, to say nothing of Congressional Republicans’ horrible image, might not matter much in next year’s general election.

If those poll numbers had predictive value, Democrat David Weprin probably would have defeated Republican Rep. Bob Turner in New York’s special election last week.

But Turner won because, as is usually the case, people saw the election as an opportunity to send a message to the president rather than to Congress or to Congressional Republicans.

Consider this: If a Congressional party’s approval advantage meant anything at all, Democrats shouldn’t have lost anything close to the 65 seats they lost in November 2010.

That’s because one month before the 2010 midterm elections, “Democratic leaders in Congress” had a higher job approval (30 percent) than “Republican leaders in Congress” did (24 percent), according to a Pew Research Center poll of adults nationwide. And, of course, the president’s job approval was far higher than both.

And Pew wasn’t alone in showing that. Early October 2010 polls by ABC News/Washington Post and CNN/Opinion Research also showed Congressional Republicans were particularly unpopular.

But the GOP made huge gains in November.

The public’s current evaluation of Congress is so low that it requires a bipartisan consensus on its performance. But that conclusion definitely does not mean that Republican and Democratic partisans think about “Congress” exactly the same way when they consider the question of its performance.

I’m willing to bet that when Democrats respond to the question about Congress’ job performance, they are thinking about what they regard as Republican “obstructionism” about as much as they are reacting to Congress’ inability to address the big issues of the day.

Conversely, I’d bet that when many Republicans hear the question, they picture Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and think of Congressional Democrats stymieing House GOP initiatives.

Yes, Republicans and Democrats both disapprove of Congress’ performance but for different reasons. And they have very different ideas of what they would like Congress to do before they would evaluate its performance differently than they do now.

The fact that so many respondents disapprove of Congress’ performance doesn’t mean that they are going to blame Congress for the nation’s problems or that they are going to vote against their party’s nominee for Congress.

Obviously, Congress as an institution is unpopular. It is unpopular among Republican, Democratic and independent voters. That reality could make some incumbents substantially more vulnerable in primaries (particularly in a redistricting cycle), and it certainly could change how Members run their re-election campaigns.

Some of the nation’s best pollsters warn repeatedly that we are in uncharted territory when it comes to public sentiment about our political institutions, political leaders and the nation’s political future.

Americans have lost confidence in our political institutions’ ability to deal with the nation’s short-term and long-term problems, and because of that, it’s hard to know how voters will behave next year.

But until we see some sort of new behavior, we probably ought to consider how voters have responded in similar circumstances rather than merely asserting that they will adopt an entirely new pattern of behavior. And voters usually blame presidents for bad news, not Congress — particularly when control of Congress is divided between the two parties.

President Harry Truman did successfully run against Congress in 1948. But the differences between Truman’s situation and Obama’s are striking. The New Deal coalition was solidly in control back then, so Truman needed merely to activate it against the GOP. The president has a much more difficult job now.

Obama has few high cards in his hand. Running against Congressional Republicans for blocking the recovery and choosing political gridlock over bipartisan cooperation is a long shot, but at least it’s a coherent strategy. Running against a dangerous Republican presidential nominee, of course, would be an even better one, but the president needs the GOP’s cooperation to put that strategy into effect.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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