Here's a scary exercise for Republicans. First, make a graph of Bill Clinton's job approval ratings for the nine months following November 1994, when Republicans dealt him a crushing defeat in midterm elections. Then superimpose Barack Obama's job approval ratings for the nine months following November 2010, when Republicans dealt him a crushing defeat in midterm elections. The lines look pretty similar.
For one, they start out at almost exactly the same point. Clinton's job approval rating in the Gallup poll was 46 percent in the first week of November 1994. Obama's job approval rating was 45 percent in the first week of November 2010.
The lines then follow a comparable course. Clinton had a bumpy ride in the months after defeat, but his rating never fell below 40 percent and never rose above 51 percent. Obama has been doing much the same thing; in the latest Gallup survey, he is at 42 percent.
A turning point for Clinton came in late 1995 and early 1996, when he faced off against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and congressional Republicans in a budget fight that resulted in two government shutdowns. Clinton's ratings were in the low 40s when the fight began. When he emerged victorious -- at least in the press and in some public opinion polls -- his numbers began a slow climb. In March 1996, Clinton was at 52 percent approval. In June '96 he was at 58 percent. In August he hit 60 percent. And in November he was re-elected.
Of course, Gingrich and the Republicans were re-elected, too; pundits who describe the '95-'96 shutdowns as a disaster for the GOP often neglect to mention that. So in a narrowly political sense, both Clinton and the GOP won the shutdowns. The question now is whether Obama and his Republican adversaries might do the same after their current fight over the debt ceiling.
In his drive for re-election, Clinton needed Republican help, not just as a foil but as a source of policy initiatives. For a man who announced "the era of big government is over," Clinton had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward both balanced budget legislation and welfare reform -- now seen as key accomplishments of his presidency. Republicans did the dragging, and when Clinton moved the GOP's way, his prospects improved.
The public also found that it liked divided government. Republicans were elected in 1994 because voters wanted to place a check on Clinton. Republicans were elected in 2010 because voters wanted to place a check on Obama. With that check in place, Obama might find that if he, like Clinton, were to move the GOP's way, his prospects might improve.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons why it might not work. In November 1996, unemployment was 5.4 percent. It's 9.2 percent now and is predicted to be at 8 percent or above in November '12. "The economic situation is so dramatically different," says a Republican strategist who is skeptical of the Obama-GOP win-win scenario. "You have anemic economic growth, you have unemployment that has been above 8 percent for more than 20 months, and you have a deficit that is more than a trillion dollars. Clinton had an economic strength that Obama doesn't have."
In the end, Obama might be doomed whatever he does. But as his campaign aides have pointed out, he's betting that voters will judge him on whether they feel he's taking the economy in the right direction, not whether he has reached any particular point. It's a pretty thin hope, but it might be a little more realistic if voters perceive him working with Republicans to go in that right direction.
To many Republicans these days, Obama resembles Jimmy Carter more than Bill Clinton. Certainly Obama's dour, eat-your-peas lecturing evokes the worst of Carter's sanctimoniousness. But Obama's popularity is nowhere near as low as Carter's was at the same point in their presidencies.
According to newly compiled figures from the Gallup organization, Obama's average job approval in the most recent quarter -- his 10th quarter in office -- was 46.8 percent. Carter's was an astonishing 31 percent. Obama is more in the range of Ronald Reagan (44.4 percent) and Clinton (49.3 percent) at that point in their presidencies.Both won re-election. As they seek to win the White House themselves, Republicans can only hope that Obama is not as savvy -- or as flexible -- as his predecessors.