Two numbers that have come out since last Friday are depressing the chances for action on federal education policy. Everyone now knows that employment ticked upward to 9.2 percent, but few have noticed that Obama’s Real Clear Politics (RCP) job approval rating, positive for most of 2011, turned negative early Sunday morning: 46.8 now disapprove of the job the president is doing, while 46.3 give him their approval. That’s a negative 0.5 percent. It’s a tiny, statistically insignificant difference, but from a presidential perspective it’s trending in a bad direction.
The RCP approval rating sums up all the polls out there, averaging out the idiosyncrasies and biases of each. It seldom changes by more than a point or two in any given day, and often it does not shift at all. With more than a year until election day, it’s the best forecasting number available, much better than the misleading mock races against hypothetical opponents that get so much press attention. History shows that presidents cannot win re-election if their popularity rating falls well below the 50 percent mark.
Only a couple of months ago, Osama bin Laden’s demise had given the president a ten point jump in the approval ratings, but the public now seems to have totally forgotten that triumph, as the economy’s woes reassert themselves.
Until the latest economic dip, it seemed that the Republican leaders in Congress had settled for control of the House and maybe the Senate in November 2012. If that’s all they really care about, the best way to hold their jobs was to simply work closely with the president, fashioning budgetary compromises, designing bipartisan education reform legislation, and getting other governmental business in hand. Moderate majorities can be found in Congress for such actions, as long as the president is willing to abandon the left wing of the Democratic Party and embrace divided government, letting Republicans control one or even both of the congressional chambers.
But with the president’s popularity turning negative, legislative politics are giving way to presidential politics. A key signal this weekend was the joint attack on the Obama-Boehner debt-increase compromise by all the major Republican presidential candidates. Faced by such opposition, as well as a revolt by a good share of the Republicans in Congress, Boehner could do nothing other than go back to the drawing board, even if his new, tougher line places at risk a number of Republican representatives in critical swing districts. With the Republicans taking a tough line, that may leave the President with no option but to stand by the most partisan of his friends in the legislative branch, who are hoping to put congressional Republicans on that electrified Social Security rail.
So both sides are going “all in” in 2012. Republicans see a one-term presidency, while Democrats expect to win everything back, if not by the margin achieved in 2008. That means a continuing tussle over the budget. And it leaves No Child Left Behind on the books, even if the executive branch has put the law on ignore.
Of course, all this can change again. The economy can recover, or another foreign policy victory can be achieved, and President Obama may stand as tall as he did the day Osama’s number came up. If he regains his presidential stature, Republicans and the president will find a way to make up after all.
To guess whether that will happen, watch two numbers—the big unemployment one and the crucial, if little known, RCP job approval rating.
-Paul E. Peterson