Monday, August 24, 2009

President Obama set out for a weeklong family vacation Sunday facing the first stiff headwind of his presidency, with public polls showing his popularity has dipped as he has attempted an overhaul of the nation’s ailing health care system.

A series of national surveys has confirmed what was becoming clear as large groups of protesters rallied outside the speeches and town-hall events the president hosted last week in Western states.

The Rasmussen Reports daily tracking poll released Sunday showed that 41 percent of voters strongly disapprove of Mr. Obama’s performance as president, compared with 27 percent who strongly approved. Rasmussen said those numbers are the worst ever for Mr. Obama. The 14-point gap between the two numbers is more than double the six-point difference in the Rasmussen poll as recently as Thursday.

The total of “disapproval” responses, of whatever strength, topped the approval numbers by 51 percent to 48 percent.

Using unusually strong language to describe the developments, borne out in a host of polls over the past week, political analyst Charlie Cook said in an e-mail to his subscribers that “the situation this summer has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and congressional Democrats.”

“We believe it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact that this mood will have on members of Congress of both parties when they return to Washington in September, if it persists through the end of the congressional recess,” Mr. Cook wrote.

Joseph Pounder, a Republican campaign consultant who recently left the staff of the House Republican leadership to work for a gubernatorial candidate in Texas, said the turn of events has been both surprising and rejuvenating for Mr. Obama’s political opponents.

“It’s been a real bad summer for a White House that was supposed to rock everyone’s world,” Mr. Pounder said.

August polls have been unkind to Mr. Obama since 2007.

Doubts beset his primary campaign in August 2007, Mr. Obama said, recalling a period when he trailed his Democratic rival by 30 points. Last August, Sarah Palin took the nation’s political main stage. “The media was obsessed with it, and cable was 24 hours a day [saying] ‘Obama’s lost his mojo,’ ” the president told a group of supporters. “You remember all that?”

Democratic activists said that Mr. Obama’s election last fall provides ample proof that he is capable of overcoming gaffes and bad poll numbers. Whether he will do that this fall, though, remains clouded by a health care debate that is staggering in its complexity.

Deputy press secretary Bill Burton said the administration has long recognized that it could see dents in the widespread support the president garnered when he first took office if it undertook an initiative as potentially divisive as health care reform.

“If getting health care reform done were a matter of making easy decisions and doing politically popular things, it probably would have gotten done a long time ago,” Mr. Burton said.

Those dents were clear in recent polling conducted jointly by The Washington Post and ABC News.

That poll said that 49 percent of Americans now express confidence that Obama will make the right decisions for the country, down from 60 percent at the 100-day mark in his presidency. Forty-nine percent say they think he will be able to spearhead significant improvements in the health care system, down nearly 20 percentage points from before he took office, the poll reported.

Some congressional Democrats have conceded in recent days that they are worried about the toll the health care battle is taking. Their own numbers have dropped alongside the president’s, and there remains no clear coalition forged to get health care done by the president’s fall deadline.

Gallup reported that its polling has found public approval of Congress at its lowest reading since February. Gallup’s Aug. 6-9 survey found 31 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing while 62 percent disapprove.

Still, not everyone is convinced that Democrats should be sounding alarms.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, said his party’s leaders have recognized for months what they are facing - the historical track record suggests the party in power almost always loses seats during its first midterm test.

But he said Republicans in Congress are miscalculating by aligning themselves with what he called “the pitchfork crowd,” parading with posters of Mr. Obama’s face smeared with an Adolf Hitler mustache.

Those tactics “are going to boomerang” before the health care debate has ended, Mr. Van Hollen said.

“If Obama has shown anything, it’s that he’s Mister October - that’s when he makes his comebacks after a rough patch,” said Phil Singer, a Democratic consultant who runs Marathon Strategies.

Mr. Singer, who served as a combative top press aide to the Clinton campaign against Mr. Obama in 2007 and 2008, said it would be a “huge mistake” to bet against the president.

He predicted that White House aides - nearly all of whom worked for Mr. Obama during the election - would kick into campaign mode when the American people emerge from summer vacations and re-engage with politics and policy. Mr. Singer also dismissed the troubling early polls for congressional Democrats, such as a Cook Report survey released Friday suggesting the party could lose more than 20 seats in 2010.

“Two years ago, polls showed Hillary Clinton was going to be president,” he said, laughing.

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