Feb. 11, 2016 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.

Iím willing to bet that when Democrats respond to the question about Congressí job performance, they are thinking about what they regard as Republican ďobstructionismĒ about as much as they are reacting to Congressí inability to address the big issues of the day.

Conversely, Iíd bet that when many Republicans hear the question, they picture Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and think of Congressional Democrats stymieing House GOP initiatives.

Yes, Republicans and Democrats both disapprove of Congressí performance but for different reasons. And they have very different ideas of what they would like Congress to do before they would evaluate its performance differently than they do now.

The fact that so many respondents disapprove of Congressí performance doesnít mean that they are going to blame Congress for the nationís problems or that they are going to vote against their partyís nominee for Congress.

Obviously, Congress as an institution is unpopular. It is unpopular among Republican, Democratic and independent voters. That reality could make some incumbents substantially more vulnerable in primaries (particularly in a redistricting cycle), and it certainly could change how Members run their re-election campaigns.

Some of the nationís best pollsters warn repeatedly that we are in uncharted territory when it comes to public sentiment about our political institutions, political leaders and the nationís political future.

Americans have lost confidence in our political institutionsí ability to deal with the nationís short-term and long-term problems, and because of that, itís hard to know how voters will behave next year.

But until we see some sort of new behavior, we probably ought to consider how voters have responded in similar circumstances rather than merely asserting that they will adopt an entirely new pattern of behavior. And voters usually blame presidents for bad news, not Congress ó particularly when control of Congress is divided between the two parties.

President Harry Truman did successfully run against Congress in 1948. But the differences between Trumanís situation and Obamaís are striking. The New Deal coalition was solidly in control back then, so Truman needed merely to activate it against the GOP. The president has a much more difficult job now.

Obama has few high cards in his hand. Running against Congressional Republicans for blocking the recovery and choosing political gridlock over bipartisan cooperation is a long shot, but at least itís a coherent strategy. Running against a dangerous Republican presidential nominee, of course, would be an even better one, but the president needs the GOPís cooperation to put that strategy into effect.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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