- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2013

Americans enter President Obama’s second term more upbeat about the direction of the country than they were four years ago, when the recession was at its depths, but voters are less sure that government can be of any use to them.

Mr. Obama’s first inauguration, at the end of eight years of partisan warfare under President George W. Bush, was a bright spot of hope for bipartisanship: 50 percent of Americans predicted both parties would find ways to work together.

But four years later, even though voters returned the exact same balance of power to Washington, they are much less optimistic. Just 23 percent expect cooperation, according to the Pew Research Center.

“The biggest shift is this idea that there would be partisan cooperation,” said Carroll Doherty, associate director for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. “When Obama first took office, right before we did our poll, there was an expectation that the two parties were really going to get along. This was a huge change.”

The pessimism is high even as — or possibly because — the appetite for cooperation has grown.

Mr. Obama’s accomplished a lot during his first two years in office, though it was without much Republican support.

The economic stimulus package won the support of no House Republicans and just three Senate Republicans. One of them, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, ended up leaving the Republican Party because of voters’ backlash to his vote.

Mr. Obama’s health care initiative passed without a single Republican vote in either chamber, and only after Democrats used a budget tactic to work around Sen. Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, who cast the 41st Republican vote in February 2010, meaning they had the ability to filibuster.

Republicans went on to win control of the House and slice Democrats’ margin in the Senate in November 2010, and the final two years of Mr. Obama’s first term were defined by bruising budget fights.

All of that has taken its toll. Mr. Obama enters his second term with a job rating parallel to that of Mr. Bush in 2005. In each case, Mr. Doherty said, voters of the opposing party found little to like.

Mr. Bush accomplished little domestically during his second term and spent most of his final two years playing defense against a Democrat-led Congress. Whether Mr. Obama will have better results remains to be seen.

There are some striking similarities between now and four years ago, when Mr. Bush turned over the Oval Office to Mr. Obama.

The unemployment rate stands at 7.8 percent, which is what it was in January 2009, though the rate is dropping. Four years ago, the jobless rate was rising and Mr. Obama was a month away from pumping $800 billion into the slumping economy.

Other measures are more grim.

Federal debt has risen from $10.627 trillion on Inauguration Day 2009 to $16.433 trillion, a record level for any presidency.

The average price for a gallon of gas is $3.24, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, up dramatically from $1.83 in 2009.

But annual deficits, while still above $1 trillion a year, have dropped from a record peak of $1.4 trillion in 2009. The economy is growing, posting a 3.1 percent rise in gross domestic product in the third quarter last year, compared with a 5.2 percent drop in January 2009.

Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” program Sunday, White House adviser David Plouffe said there are “atmospheric differences” between now and four years ago.

“We, obviously, had an economy that was collapsing all around us, and he was a first-term president. So at that time, he’s still putting together his team, his Cabinet, his agenda,” Mr. Plouffe said. “I think, now, the economy is still too weak but recovering. And so the question is, right now, is building on that as opposed to just simply trying to stem the bleeding. It’s a big difference.”

Mr. Obama has said he is well-aware of what has come to be called the “second-term curse,” as presidents who get re-elected stumble — often as they deal with scandals or policies from their first terms.

Gallup reported that approval ratings dropped by double digits in the final four years of four of the past six presidents to win second terms. Each of those four averaged well above 50 percent approval during their first terms.

Ratings rose during the second terms of two presidents, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Both of them averaged 50 percent approval in their first terms, weighted down by sluggish economies that improved during their final four years.

Mr. Obama’s first term was strikingly similar to those two. He averaged a 49 percent rating amid the worst economy since the Great Depression.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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