I wrote a lengthy op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last Friday (July 17) suggesting that President Obama take a time out and review his fundamental domestic-policy strategy. I dealt only briefly, however, with the matter of upcoming 2010 congressional elections. The two are directly related.
Obama's approval rating has fallen below 60 percent for the first time since his inaugural. Depending on the poll you trust, it is between 55-57 percent — neither high nor low for a first-term President at this stage. But in high-unemployment states such as Ohio, it is below 50 percent. Moreover, independent voters who made the difference in his 2008 election have been falling away rapidly. The reasons: anxiety about continuing recession as well as federal debt being rapidly piled up by the financial and auto-industry bailouts and, prospectively, by the pending health-care and cap-and-trade legislation in the Congress.
Democratic congressional incumbents — especially in districts carried in 2008 by Sen. John McCain or which are traditionally "marginal" — fear dissatisfaction about the economy and mounting federal debt will cause them to lose their seats. The out party generally gains seats in off-year elections, and 2010 is not expected to be an exception.
No Washington state congressional incumbent of either party at this point seems threatened. But, in recent weeks, Republicans have been able to recruit attractive candidates where they previously were lacking. Two strong Republican Senatorial candidates, New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte and Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk, declared their candidacies earlier this month. Kirk now is favored to win Obama's former Illinois Senate seat.
Senate Democratic leaders had hoped Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican turned Democrat, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who filled Hillary Clinton's former seat, would be able to run unopposed in Democratic primaries next year. But Specter is being challenged by Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democratic newcomer from the Philadelphia suburbs, and Gillibrand by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a veteran Democrat from Manhattan's silk-stocking district. These primaries are expected to be divisive and to enhance Republicans' chances of capturing the seats. Majority Leader Harry Reid has highly unfavorable ratings in his home state of Nevada, but thus far he has no credible Republican opponent.
If precedent holds, Democrats will hold majorities in both the Senate and House after 2010 elections. But their majorities likely will be narrower than at present and, in the Senate, Democrats could fall beneath the 60-vote level necessary to cut off debate and force a vote on key issues.
That is why the timing of economic recovery and the health-care and cap-and-trade bills looms so large. If recovery is slow in coming — for instance, not arriving until next March or April — then Democrats will be vulnerable. Unemployment, the most important measure for most voters, lags the end of recession by six months and probably would not begin to turn downward until just before election day.
The health-care and cap-and-trade bills' futures are problematic. They will be able to attract almost no Republican votes. In the House, perhaps 50 Democrats have threatened to vote no and, in the Senate, a half-dozen could do so. That would kill legislation Obama has said is vital but which frightens moderate Democrats because of its price tag and the tax increases which would be necessary to finance it. A recent Kaiser Foundation national survey found that health care, once thought voters' primary 2009 concern, now ranked only fourth as a voter concern, lagging behind economic recovery, the financial plights of Social Security and Medicare, and the size of the federal deficit.
Obama has gone to a full court press to drive the legislation forward. If the two bills cannot clear the Congress by its August recess, their chances will diminish. So, watch closely what happens to these bills over the next two weeks. It will be a measure of Democratic legislators' confidence or anxiety going into the election cycle.