Lately, the American political academy has been consumed by the so-called "Obama paradox." Despite racking up a string of major legislative successes - on health-care reform, Wall Street regulation and, just on Thursday, extended benefits for the unemployed - the President's approval rating just keeps sinking. Any more "success," and Barack Obama could soon make even George W. Bush look popular.
A recent ranking by 238 top scholars pegged Mr. Obama as the 15th best president out of the 43 men who have held the office - surpassing the likes of Ronald Reagan (18th) and Lyndon Johnson (16th). Yet his approval rating fell to an unenviable low of 44 per cent in the July 21 Quinnipiac University poll, one of the most rigorous in the field.
Fully 48 per cent of Americans, Quinnipiac noted, now say Mr. Obama does not deserve to be re-elected in 2012. Only 40 per cent would give him a second term. The President's favourability rating, according to a Gallup survey out this week, is now only seven percentage points above that of Mr. Bush. Ouch. Bill and Hillary Clinton stand head and shoulders above Mr. Obama in public esteem. That's like a slap to both sides of the face.
One common explanation for Mr. Obama's paradoxical standing is that it is no paradox at all. The popularity of American presidents is always and everywhere an economic phenomenon. With unemployment still stuck at 9.5 per cent and Americans unusually fearful for their financial security, unfulfilled promises of hope and change inevitably start sounding hollow.
The White House made a fateful miscalculation by failing to portray the President as all-consumed with turning around the economy. Instead, Mr. Obama has often come across as caring more about legacy items like health-care reform (fun for historians, but not exactly a vote-getter) than about creating jobs in the here and now. Both are important. But Mr. Obama's priorities are, in the eyes of voters, sorely out of order.
If the President has two years and some to rebuild his popularity, Americans will get an early opportunity to express their discontent with him in November's midterm congressional elections. And with exactly 100 days left to go before the Nov. 2 vote - when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 37 of 100 Senate seats are being contested - the situation is looking grim for the President's party. Democrats may need divine intervention to hold on to their majority in the House. And Republicans are increasingly confident they can win back the Senate, too.
It is an understatement to say that, if the Democrats lose one or both houses, the second half of Mr. Obama's first term will not look the same as the first half.
Many pundits think that might be good for him. But that is no consolation to the Democratic members of Congress who will lose this fall. They went to bat to advance the President's agenda expecting, if not gratitude, at least an effort from the White House to save their seats. Instead, they have the White House press secretary telling Meet the Press that "there's no doubt there's enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control."
That utterance understandably left House Speaker Nancy Pelosi fuming. "I don't know who this guy is. I've never met him before. And he's saying we're going to lose the House," she reportedly told her caucus. Being dead to Nancy Pelosi is not a fate to be wished upon anyone. Luckily, the newspaper Politico reported this week, the White House has reassured House Democrats that it is "not actively sabotaging" their campaigns.
Well, that's something, at least. The White House insists the midterms are not a referendum on the President. Except that they almost always are. The particularities of local races are important (more on that later) but countless studies of U.S. elections suggest that the swing voters who most determine outcomes only care about one thing, stupid.
THE BEST PREDICTOR?
Political scientists have tested different economic variables to determine the best predictor of election outcomes. It turns out it's not necessarily the unemployment rate and - Tea Partiers notwithstanding - it's definitely not the size of the deficit. No, the variable that most closely correlates with U.S. election results is the change in real disposable income during the previous year. In May, the year-over-year figure was negative. Any way you slice it, Democratic heads will be in the guillotine this fall.
How many is quite another matter. If the economic reductionists are to be believed, Democratic candidates in swing districts and states can forget the election signs, scrap the speeches, save the unconscionable sums of money they spend on their campaigns and, most of all, spare voters those endless and unseemly negative TV ads