Syria, a moribund economy, and sinking presidential approval numbers may all work to undermine Democratic efforts to retake the House and hang on to the Senate in 2014.

Charlie Cook:

Stepping back, midterm elections are, more often than not, referenda on the White House occupant. While the president’s name is not on the ballot, voters usually register their approval or disapproval of the administration through their votes for Congress. Obama’s job-approval ratings are currently in the low- to mid-40s, roughly where George W. Bush’s were at this point in his second term (his later dropped as low as 31 percent). Obama’s disapproval ratings are running just above his approval ratings—never a good sign—but the president’s numbers are not yet radioactive.

The other relevant political axiom to keep in mind is that Americans often vote their pocketbooks, based on their perceptions of how the national economy is doing, how they are doing, and whether they are seeing the economy through a hopeful or a pessimistic lens. The U.S. economy, as measured by real gross domestic product, grew at a very healthy pace of 3.7 percent in the first quarter of 2012. However, for the remaining three quarters of last year and first two quarters of this year, the recovery did not proceed nearly as steadily: Growth ranged from as low as one-tenth of 1 point in the fourth quarter of last year to 2.5 percent in the second quarter of this year. Growth is not at the pace that you would want coming out of the longest, deepest, and most diffuse economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The consensus of 55 top economists surveyed by Blue Chip Economic Indicators earlier this month called for the economy to increase by 2.1 percent in the third quarter of 2013 and 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter, with growth gradually rising to between 2.7 percent and 3 percent over the course of next year; the economists project unemployment to be at 6.8 percent in the final quarter of next year, somewhat better than the current level.

Consumer confidence is a bit off its six-year high but still not remotely near the bullish years from 1983 through 2007. So, yes, people are feeling better about the economy than they did during the recession, but the numbers still aren’t good.

A mediocre economy is certainly not an asset for the party holding the White House, but it may not be a strong drag, either. If Obama’s job ratings bounce around at or under 40 percent for long, Democrats should worry that the historic trend of the president’s party losing ground in the House may catch up with them. But these are the typical dynamics for a midterm election. Syria would definitely complicate matters.

Cook never mentions Obamacare which may be a non-issue by the time mid-terms roll around. Unless lightening strikes and the ACA is repealed, defunded, or declared unconstitutional, it will be what it will be next fall – still a mess, probably more expensive, but fading as an issue as the numbers of new enrollees shrinks.

The interesting thing about Syria is that Obama will have a choice to make once Assad is shown to be delaying and blocking the UN inspectors from doing their jobs. Does he once again raise the specter of military action? If Assad were to use the Saddam playbook, such threats would be met by a retreat — just enough to satisfy most of the world and prevent an attack.

The depressing reality is that, as we saw with Saddam, such game playing could go on for years.

It will be the health – or lack thereof- of the economy that will make the difference. Democrats can hardly be optimistic if voters cast their ballot based on how many part time jobs were created and how we’re growing just fast enough to avoid slipping into another recession. For that reason, the GOP should pick up a few seats in the House and may come close to taking over the Senate.