President Obama’s advisers have telegraphed their goal to win control of the House in 2014, which would give the president unfettered control to advance his favored policies. But the bigger concern for the White House should be the more realistic possibility that they could lose the Senate in 2014 – an outcome that’s only enhanced by the president’s second-term strategy focusing on rallying the base over centrist governance.
It’s no coincidence that on Wednesday, in a welcome about-face, Obama belatedly engaged a charm offensive with Republicans, inviting leading senators to a private dinner and pow-wowing with Paul Ryan for lunch on Thursday to discuss the budget. This, from the president who predicted that he would be able to work with the GOP only after he won reelection, arguing their “fever may break” upon his victory.
All of this is a result of the Republicans (unexpectedly) scoring twin victories in the battle over the sequester, getting their cuts all while pressuring the president’s popularity downward. The White House overreached in parading Cabinet secretaries to exaggerate doom-and-gloom consequences. And the public is demonstrating its frustration, handing Obama new lows in his job-approval rating since the election.
This week’s Quinnipiac poll shows the president’s job-approval rating dropping to 45 percent, his lowest since winning a second term. More ominously, a record-high 46 percent of Americans said they are “very dissatisfied” with the direction of the country – an even higher number than the pollster found in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, when voters feared the economy was in free fall. All told, nearly three-quarters of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, a worrisome statistic for the party in power. The trend lines are similar from all the polls released in the last week.
That has necessitated a change in the strategy, or at least the bluster, from the White House. Put simply, a president with a middling job-approval rating, won’t be able to net 17 House seats – not when there are only 16 Republicans left in districts Obama carried. Remember: Democrats will also be on defense; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this week named 26 of the party’s own members who are vulnerable as part of its Frontline assistance program.
If Obama’s job-approval ratings remain below 50 percent in 2014, the chances increase that the Senate will be in play. Next year’s electorate could look more like 2010 than 2012 — the consequence of a boom-bust cycle, when the Democrats’ base turns out for Obama, but not for downballot Democrats. The president will be a valuable asset helping the party committees fundraise, but he won’t be welcome in most of the key Senate battlegrounds.
There was a lot of chatter about the Republicans taking the Senate in both 2010 and 2012 but I never thought either offered a realistic opportunity. Everything would have had to been run perfectly and we’re talking about the GOP here. 2014 does offer a very real chance, and not just if the president’s approval numbers remain low. At the moment, it appears that the Democrats are just banking on the Republicans blowing the opportunity rather rallying early to defend the host of Senate seats they have in play for 2014. We’ll know very soon if the GOP hierarchy really did learn any lessons from the humiliation of last year.