All around, there are Democrats telling us their prospects for November are looking up. Things aren't as bad as Republicans say! Health care is becoming more popular! The country wants financial reform! People still like Barack Obama! Isn't Joe Barton awful?!
They're fooling themselves. The basic indicators of voters' intentions -- their general mood and attitude toward the policies of Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid -- are clear and solid. Unless those indicators change, and most experts believe that would take a huge, unforeseen event that fundamentally alters the political equation, Democrats are in for serious losses this November. The only question is whether those losses will be big enough for them to lose their huge majorities in the House and Senate. Even if they're not, the party will be badly weakened in the next Congress.
The latest evidence is a new survey from pollsters Peter Hart and Bill McInturff for the Wall Street Journal and NBC. The number of people who say the country is headed in the wrong direction is 62 percent -- the highest it has been since the final days of George W. Bush. The troubled economy, of course, is the most important issue, and 66 percent say they expect the economy to stay the same or get worse in the next year.
"There is a sense across the board that things aren't working," says Republican pollster David Winston.
Obama's approval rating is at 45 percent, versus 48 percent disapproval -- the first time the president has ever been underwater in the Journal poll. (By way of contrast, the president's approval rating was 61 percent in April 2009, his high point in the Journal poll.)
People are not happy about the way Obama is handling the economy, with 50 percent disapproving compared to 46 percent approving. He's also being hurt by the gulf oil spill. Fifty percent in the survey disapprove of his handling of the crisis, compared to 42 percent who approve. That's not much better than George W. Bush's rating for handling the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which was 53 percent disapproval, 36 percent approval six months after the storm and the media's subsequent battering of Bush.
A president's personal-approval rating is often higher than his job-performance rating. With Obama, the two are more or less the same: 47 percent personal approval versus 45 percent job approval -- neither very good.
Obama has also taken a fall when it comes to the sometimes hard-to-describe attributes that shape public opinions about leaders. The Journal asked whether people "strongly relate to (Obama) as your president," or whether they related to him somewhat, only a little or not really at all. The number of people who say they strongly relate to Obama as president has gone from 50 percent on Inauguration Day to 29 percent today, while the number of people who say they don't really relate to him has gone from 8 percent then to 30 percent now. There's clearly a growing alienation with the once enormously popular president.
Of course, Obama isn't on the ballot this November. But his ratings contribute to what Winston calls the public's "overall sense of the ability to govern." From that perspective, Obama's troubles are the Democrats' troubles.
And Democrats in Congress have plenty of their own. When asked their preference for the outcome of this year's elections, 45 percent of those surveyed say they want Congress to be controlled by Republicans, while 43 percent want Democrats in charge. In April 2009, people wanted a Democratic Congress by a margin of 48 percent to 39 percent.
The pollsters asked whether voters would be more or less enthusiastic about a candidate if they knew he supported a particular position on the issues. The most popular positions were cutting federal spending, reforming Wall Street, and repealing the national healthcare law -- two Republican issues and one Democratic one. By a wide margin, people are more enthusiastic about a candidate who promises to repeal health care than they are about an Obama-endorsed candidate.
As strong as the numbers look, smart Republicans are constantly telling one another to calm down and keep working. While the public has soured on Obama and the Democratic leadership, Republicans can't just bash the opposition. "The Democrats have really opened the door for Republicans," Winston says, "and the challenge for Republicans is to lay out for people what they'll get if they get a GOP majority." If Republicans can do that, they'll win big in November.