Sept. 2, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Should Obama Run Against Congress?

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Barack Obama (left) has few high cards in his hand to win re-election. Running against the work of Speaker John Boehner and Congressional Republicans is a long shot, but at least it’s a coherent strategy, Stuart Rothenberg writes. Running against a dangerous Republican presidential nominee, though, would be better.

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.

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