Can an Education Bill Save the Obama Presidency?

March 18, 2010 was a red letter day.  On that date, for the very first time, more Americans disapproved than approved of the way President Obama was handling his job as president. So says the Real Clear Politics (RCP) average of all polls, the best available indicator of presidential popularity. Only a tiny fraction separates the President’s approval and disapproval numbers, both of which hover around 47 percent, so the President could promptly regain a slight advantage. But Obama’s approval score has been heading steadily south since his honeymoon days, and it has now reached the tipping point.

Any president with approval ratings under 50 percent is at risk of becoming a one-term president. Already, we know that the overwhelming Democratic majority in Congress will nearly vanish in November. Indications that liberal Supreme Court Justice John Stevens will retire in June is just the latest sign that the political tide has reversed.  Stevens most certainly wants a successor confirmed before the president’s nominee has to navigate the shoals of a closely divided Senate. So the long-shot political betting now shifts to 2012.  Can the President recover?

Very probably, he will. The best predictor of the economic future—the stock market–is acting as if recovery is at hand. Passage of a health care bill could also help the president’s political fortunes.  After enacted, legislation is usually accepted by the voters as a fait accompli. But employment gains may come slowly and one never knows how the public will react to the new health legislation.

Even if everything goes the President’s way, Obama still needs to move beyond divisive partisanship if he is to re-cement his relationship with the American public.  To do that, the White House needs to move legislation that wins greater enthusiasm among Republicans than among Nancy Pelosi’s left-wing, interest-group-dependent Democrats.

The President’s education bill gives him the opportunity to rediscover the middle ground.  Keeping NCLB’s testing system, creating a new and better yardstick to measure school performance, finding new ways to hold schools accountable by combining carrots with sticks, encouraging merit pay, and tracking of teacher performance—all that and more has been included in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s agenda. To capture the high ground, he needs only to make clear his strong support for charter schools and offer bold, innovative ideas in virtual education. (I make the case for the latter in Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Education.)

Thinking Republicans are already prepared to support the President’s bill. In Congress, Republican leaders should take notice—after all, the popularity rating of Republicans on Capital Hill is even lower than that of the president—and make education a bipartisan issue.

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