National Journal poll shows Obama an anchor on midterm Senate hopes

And that has some Democrats worried about what comes next. Ronald Brownstein previews the poll, which will appear in the next print issue of National Journal, as an almost uninterrupted string of bad news for vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the midterms. The only faint hope for those candidates is that Congress is less popular than Barack Obama:

Obama’s overall approval, standing at just 41 percent, remains near the lowest level ever recorded in the 20 Heartland Monitor Polls since April 2009. And only one in four adults say his actions are increasing economic opportunity for people like them, also among his worst showings in the polls. His numbers are especially meager among the non-college and older whites that dominate the electorate in the seven red-leaning states where Democrats must defend Senate seats in November. …

Just 27 percent of those polled said they believed the country is moving in the right direction; 62 percent say they consider it off on the wrong track. That’s slightly better than the results last fall, but much gloomier than the assessment around Obama’s reelection in fall 2012. The racial gap on this question is huge: 41 percent of minorities say the country is moving in the right direction, but only about half as many whites (22 percent) agree. (Among whites without a college degree, just one in six see the country moving on the right track, only about half the level among whites with at least a four-year degree.)

In the new survey, 41 percent of adults said they approved of Obama’s job performance while 52 percent disapproved. Since 2009, the quarterly Heartland Monitor Polls have recorded lower approval ratings for him only last November (at 38 percent) and last September (at 40 percent). The difference between those showings and the latest result falls within the survey’s 3.1 percentage point margin of error.

In the latest poll, Obama also faces a formidable intensity gap that could foreshadow turnout challenges for Democrats: The share of adults who strongly disapprove of his performance (39 percent) is nearly double that of those who strongly approve (21 percent).

The news is particularly bad in seven key states won by Mitt Romney in 2012, where Democratic incumbents are defending Senate seats. Demographically, those states represent even tougher challenges for Democrats this time around, and the balance of passion makes the situation worse. Turnout looks like it will go to the GOP in this cycle in those states, making an already-bad situation even worse. That list doesn’t include Colorado, where a new Quinnipiac poll shows Cory Gardner in a virtual tie with incumbent Mark Udall, either.

The only bright spot, as I noted before, is that Congress is less popular than the President. However, that’s almost always true, even in midterm elections. Institutional unpopularity is less important than personal unpopularity, especially when the focus is the executive and the only response available is to elect more of the President’s opposition. That happened in 2010, and that’s the dynamic we’re most likely to see in 2014, too.

What happens if that scenario comes to pass, and Republicans end up in control of the Senate and the House in 2015? Democrats are starting to worry that Obama will start looking for ways to cut deals in order to build his “legacy” in his final months as President:

With Obama’s political career winding down and poll numbers continuing to languish, his party brethren fret that their own president — forced to work with GOP majorities — would give away the store on key policy issues ranging from the budget to energy and trade. It’s a concern congressional Democrats have voiced every time Obama and Vice President Joe Biden tried to cut big fiscal deals with Republicans — and the panic is now more palpable with the growing prospect of a Senate GOP majority.

Washington’s current gridlock may seem destined to last forever, but divided government has produced strange bedfellows before. President George W. Bush switched teams on some key issues in his final two years after Democrats took the House and Senate, becoming a cap-and-trade convert who bailed out Wall Street. President Bill Clinton partnered with the same Republicans who impeached him to overhaul welfare and balance the budget. And President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill found common ground reforming the Tax Code and Social Security.

While tackling anything comprehensive with legislation sounds far-fetched before the next president is sworn in, that doesn’t mean there won’t be moments starting after November when Obama would be tempted to negotiate with Republicans following four years of stalemate. After all, the GOP would have greater leverage. And with the White House on the line in 2016, Republicans will also want to prove they aren’t just against Obama but actually capable of governing again.

“Clearly it’s a concern. It keeps me awake at night,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “From his standpoint, better to advance the ball and maybe give away some stuff than leave nothing at all. From our standpoint, better to fight another day than give away core principles of contents and conviction.”

This sounds very familiar. Conservatives worried about the same thing after the disastrous 2006 midterms, but they weren’t exactly thrilled with Bush before then, either. Bush had more bipartisan leanings than Obama does during the 2001-2006 period — think of “No Child Left Behind” and one abortive attempt at immigration reform in 2006 before the bigger failure in 2007 — but the impulse may be stronger for Obama in 2015-6. So far, his track record has nearly no successes, and certainly nothing major, in either domestic or foreign policy. ObamaCare has been a train wreck, and the economy a stagnant mess. Obama will need a couple of significant victories on his way out the door if he is to get any at all.

That will require Obama to actually negotiate in good faith with Republicans, though, and to build trust that he will follow through on commitments. After the serial lawlessness of ObamaCare, that’s going to be difficult to do, and Republicans won’t have a lot of pressure on them to move much to meet Obama somewhere in the middle.