President Obama gave himself a “good, solid B+” when Oprah Winfrey asked him to grade his performance in office so far. But what most interests Democrats on Capitol Hill is how voters grade him – and whether that will help them keep control of the House when every seat comes up for election in 2010.
Whether Democrats can keep control of the House in the 2010 election hinges on three things: the direction of job growth, Democrats' ability to convince independent voters that the country’s finances are not out of control, and the direction of Barack Obama’s approval ratings.
That is the assessment of John Podesta, president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Mr. Podesta is an influential Democrat, having served as co-chair of Mr. Obama’s transition and, previously, as chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. He was the guest at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast with reporters on Monday.
Job growth key
“The most critical issue … for Democrats next November will be the direction of job growth,” Podetsa said. His view is that at the moment Democrats in Congress “are hit with sort of a double whammy of having done a lo, but of having people feel like it hasn’t affected their lives.”
Podesta argued that no one unemployment figure will be a “magic number” for Democrats' political success. Instead, if by the summer of 2010 the number of jobs in the economy is growing consistently, then Democrats in Congress can hold the loss of seats “to a relative minimum,” he said. One question, he added, is “do people smell we are on the right path or do they feel still bogged down?”
Getting back to balance
A key challenge facing Democrats, Podesta said, is to reassure independent voters that “ things aren’t haywire, that they are not out of control, that [Democrats] have a plan and a path to move forward and, indeed, one which restores things to the more appropriate balance between the private sector and the public sector.”
For Democrats to demonstrate that control, Podesta argued in favor of a timetable to put the federal budget back in balance. “Once the economy is fully recovered, deficit reduction will be critical to growth and broadly shared prosperity,” he said. The Center for American Progress proposes establishing a mechanism to ensure that government income and spending for all items -- except debt service -- move into balance by 2014. The next goal would be to have all government spending – including debt service – be covered by income in 2020.
Another aspect of demonstrating control, Podesta said, is for the president to move from focusing on the passage of legislation to “really driving the government to implement this legislation in a way that is likely to produce results.”
Watching the polls
While describing job growth as a critical issue in whether Democrats retain control of Congress, Podesta contended that “the other big question that the Congress will face is what is Obama’s job approval?" If Obama’s job approval rating remains about where it is or moves up slightly, he said, then congressional Democrats “will be fine.”
A potential decline in the president’s approval rating “will be the most critical factor in the congressional electoral success,” he said. If members of Congress “think they have a strategy to cut and run on him, it is highly unlikely to be successful.”