Warning Signs for Obama: Bad Polls, Strong Opposition, and Worried Allies

Former SEIU president Andy Stern said that even an enthusiastic get-out-the-vote effort by organized labor could not have overcome the "continued level of incredible frustration at everyone in Washington, indiscriminate" evident in the results in New York, a dynamic he said held ominous warnings for Obama next year.

Turning Points

President Obama's approval rating is at a three-year low. It first dipped beneath 50 percent in January 2010, after a racous health care debate and the emergence of the tea party. It fell again this year as the economy has stalled.

"As much as the Democrats want to tone down the question of whether this is a trend, and I think it's too early to tell, it wouldn't make me sleep very well at night,'' he said. Stern said Obama had "just started doing right" two things: defining his objectives and contrasting choices in fiscal policy that benefit the middle class. If voters fail to cotton to those efforts, he said, the president could be in trouble.

Frustration with Obama has seeped into other deep-blue parts of the country. Democratic congressional candidate Brad Schneider is challenging Rep. Robert Dold in a liberal-leaning, heavily Jewish district near Chicago where Obama won 61 percent of the vote in 2008. But in an interview Wednesday, Schneider acknowledged the still-sputtering economy nearly three years after the president took office has sapped enthusiasm, even among voters near Obama's hometown.

"I think a lot of people were hopeful we would be further along than we are," said Schneider, though he said the president would still be a political asset next year. Schneider isn't the only Democratic candidate avoiding a full-on embrace of Obama. Manan Trivedi, who's vying for a rematch against Rep. Jim Gerlach in southeast Pennsylvania after failing to unseat him in 2010, declined Wednesday to endorse the president's much-hyped jobs plan.

"We all want to know how it's paid for," said Trivedi, whose Philadelphia suburban district favored Obama by 17 points in 2008. "I'm waiting to figure that out as well, and I think that's where voters in the district are."

In contrast, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, sounded an upbeat tone in a telephone call with reporters on Wednesday. She said the president was building an "unprecendented'' grassroots campaign and noted and that approval ratings for Republican leaders in Congress continue to lag behind the administration.

While the Bloomberg poll showed widespread skepticism about the president's legislation to boost employment, Wasserman Schultz pointed to a CNN/ORC International poll that showed Americans approve of his economic plan by 43 to 35 percent.

"Our chances remain quite strong,'' said Wasserman Schultz, who represents a heavily Democratic district in south Florida. "We know the president's vision is resonating.''

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, dismissed the idea that the New York district was a "bellwether,'' calling it "one of the most conservative districts in New York City.'' But the Democratic congressional arm seemed to contradict Schumer in a memo stating: "We are not going to sugar coat it, this was a tough loss.''

Then the DCCC went on to give a litany of excuses for the defeat.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democratic party, said the results in the heavily Jewish district in New York reflected the economy and the candidates but "I am sure there was some fallout in Jewish support." Obama received about 78 percent of the Jewish vote nationally in 2008.

Lieberman blamed declining Jewish support on rhetorical missteps by the White House that can be corrected in the next year if the president reassures Jewish and Christian supporters of Israel that "he has the same commitment to Israel's security that most Americans do."

"Historically Jewish Americans have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, and they did in 2008 for president. So this is not an irretrievable situation,'' said Lieberman, who became the first Jewish nominee on a national ticket when he ran for vice president in 2000. "But there's no question if the election were held today, I'd say at a minimum the president would get fewer votes from Jews."

Members of the House Blue Dog Coalition downplayed the results in New York though they have every reason to be skittish. The group of moderate-leaning Democrats from swing districts was cut from 50 to 25 in the 2010 election.

"I think Blue Dogs have shown our independence and that's the way we will be successful again in the next election cycle,'' said Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., "We are giving what the American people (are) asking for - not what a political parties (are) asking for."

The next House special election is slated for next January, where a crop of Democratic politicians are vying for the nomination against a Republican businessman - for the seat of another scandalized former Democratic congressman, Rep. David Wu.

Image credit: Larry Downing/Reuters

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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