Heading into Memorial Day, Democrats were banking on “Recovery Summer” and a public rebranding of their health care overhaul to set right their political fortunes. But coming out of Labor Day and into the home stretch before November’s congressional elections, that bet hasn’t panned out.
Even with the stimulus at its peak effect, the unemployment rate ticked up a tenth of a percent between June and August, reaching 9.6 percent. Meanwhile, brief signs of enthusiasm for the health care law disappeared by late summer, with polls showing a majority of the public opposing the massive overhaul, even though there are some parts they do like.
That has left Mr. Obama fielding pointed questions like the one on Friday when he was asked whether he regretted Democrats’ self-proclaimed “Recovery Summer,” a months-long effort to highlight projects funded by the embattled $814 billion spending and tax cuts stimulus law.
“I don’t regret the notion that we are moving forward because of the steps that we’ve taken,” the president said. “The evidence that we’ve seen during the course of this summer and over the course of the last 18 months indicates that we’re moving in the right direction. We just have to speed it up.”
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine was asked the same question on “Fox News Sunday” about whether Democrats are “still calling it Recovery Summer.”
He replied: “I’m calling it - here’s what I say. I say we are climbing out of a ditch, and we are climbing up. We’ve got to keep climbing.”
Analysts say the political environment is bad for Democrats.
“To most voters - fair or not - it seems that President Obama has overpromised and underdelivered,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
The Obama administration likely envisioned a different scenario in July when it launched its six-week-long public relations campaign to rehabilitate the image of the stimulus package, which he signed in February 2009. But polls indicate voters are more concerned about high deficits and a debt that stood at more than $13.4 trillion as of Thursday.
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats were counting on voters to change their views of the massive health care overhaul when checks started going out to pay for prescription drugs under Medicare, or when rules expanding coverage eligibility went into place.
In June and July, a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll found support for the bill turning positive, with 50 percent having a favorable view in July, compared with 35 percent unfavorable. But by August, the numbers flipped, with 45 percent disliking the law, compared with 43 percent who were favorable.
Democrats say they have not been idle during the summer. In July and August, they passed an extension of stimulus money for teachers and state health care programs, and they sent Mr. Obama an overhaul of financial regulations that they said should end the need for Wall Street bailouts.
Still, Democratic strategists see the polls and wonder whether what they see as good news regarding stimulus and health care was swallowed up by such political headlines as the fight over Arizona’s law cracking down on illegal immigration, the response to the oil spill off the Gulf Coast and the debate over the mosque planned near ground zero in New York.
With two months left before the election, political pundits increasingly predict that Republicans will regain control of the House and say the Senate is also potentially in play.
Asked about the dire predictions, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) say the opinions of Washington pundits and pollsters do not accurately reflect how many of the races are shaping up on the ground and how voters are responding to individual candidates in individual races.
“Inside the Beltway, there is this conventional wisdom that nationally Republicans are up and they have all this momentum. But look, campaigns matter and so do candidates,” said Ryan Rudimor, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“What we are seeing in the polls now is that there is a generic Republican and a generic Democrat ballot, but in these races there are not a generic Republican and generic Democrat on the ballot,” he said.
The majority party also has advantages in campaign cash, and campaign operatives say they’ve also been preparing for a hard fight all along.
The DCCC went on the offensive last week by releasing a list of Republicans who have had serious questions raised about them in the local media, ranging from failure to pay taxes, to arrest warrants and “even a candidate lying about their role in driving a truck off the road because it was carrying negative mail pieces from a rival campaign.”
Democrats also are counting on the internal battle for the direction of the Republican Party to push some voters away from the GOP.
Deirdre Murphy, a spokeswoman for the DSCC, said with “tea party”-backed candidates winning some Republican primaries, the GOP will be hard-pressed to win some seats that should have been easier. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s loss to Sarah Palin-backed John Miller in Alaska is the latest example of “the Republican Party cannibalizing itself,” she said.
Mr. Kaine spoke similarly Sunday, telling Fox News host Chris Wallace that “generic is one thing,” but “Republicans are putting up candidates that are quite far out of the mainstream in terms of should we have passed the Civil Rights Act or does Social Security need to exist. We’re going to win some surprising races, Chris, because of who the other guys have put up.”