Bruising battle over the debt limit: Where did it leave Obama?

The debt-limit battle left Obama battered, with his job approval rating near its lowest point. The poor economy is a persistent threat. The good news for him is Election Day is still a long way off.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama pauses as he speaks at the Aragon Ballroom, Wednesday, Aug. 3, in Chicago, at a fundraiser on the eve of his 50th birthday. Obama tried to pivot Wednesday night from the grueling debt-limit battle to more comfortable terrain: fundraising.

President Obama tried to pivot Wednesday night from the grueling battle over the debt ceiling to more comfortable terrain: fundraising in his hometown of Chicago, with his 50th birthday Thursday as the peg.

But there’s no avoiding the fact that Mr. Obama emerged from the debt-ceiling imbroglio bruised. His Gallup job approval is at 41 percent, near his all-time low, and he has taken a pounding from liberals for what they see as “surrendering” to the tea party-emboldened Republicans over major spending cuts and a lack of new revenue.

Even if Obama can still count on liberal votes come November 2012, the independents who were crucial to his election in 2008 have soured on him. His latest Gallup weekly approval rating among independents is 37 percent.

And in the latest blow to Obama’s reelection prospects, the stock market plummeted nearly 513 points Thursday, a show of investors’ lack of confidence in both the US and global economies.

“Obviously, if the economy is tanking and goes into a double-dip recession, he is in trouble,” says John Geer, a political scientist.

The good news for Obama is that the election is in November 2012, and not in three months. If by the middle of next year, the economy is growing even modestly and unemployment is trending downward, he has a fighting chance. The Republican nominee will also matter: Will it be someone who can appeal to the middle or one of the more conservative candidates?

“I don’t think the [debt ceiling] deal hurts him in the long run,” says Mr. Geer. “The facts are that he tried to deal with this as best he could with the tea party people, they got to vote how they wanted, and then they came up with a compromise.”

The White House kept up the drumbeat Thursday in defense of the debt-ceiling compromise, posting a blog item that aimed to shoot down multiple “myths” surrounding the deal: that Obama “caved;” that the Republicans got everything they wanted; that the deal cuts Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security; that it reduces the deficit entirely on the backs of the middle class; that the so-called “super committee” called for in the legislation makes it easier for Congress to cut “the programs we care about;” and that it won’t be possible to raise revenue in the future, since there were no new revenues in the debt-ceiling deal.

“They won’t admit it publicly, but when push came to shove, Republicans backed down on their key demands,” writes Jon Carson, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. He portrays the Republicans as intent on “ending Medicare as we know it,” and imposing deep cuts on Medicaid, education, clean energy, and infrastructure.

“None of these demands made it into the final deal,” Carson writes.

Democratic strategist Peter Fenn suggests that Obama run against Congress – which is even less popular than he is – as the reelection battle heats up.

“You can make the argument that this is tailor-made for a Harry Truman kind of comeback, which is to say, ‘Hey, look at what these guys are doing to you, look how bad this Congress has overreached,’ ” Mr. Fenn says.

“I may be a little crazy, but I think people basically respect and like Obama,” Fenn adds. The problem, he says, is “they’re not totally convinced that he’s been fighting for them as hard as he should.”

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