WASHINGTON – Americans are deeply unhappy with Congress and President Barack Obama, and there’s no quick fix in sight.
The cause: political mistakes on both sides of the bitter partisan divide. The effect: an uncertain outcome in next year’s congressional elections. Will the Republicans hold the House of Representatives? Can they take majority control from Democrats in the Senate? Both parties are weakened, and Obama’s popularity is sinking.
The Republican party is at war within, with its tea party-aligned minority having set an agenda that sent party approval sinking. Conservative ideologues insist on dramatic measures to shrink government and slash taxes. Many of their proposals are at odds with what the majority of Americans want, but the rhetoric plays well in conservative congressional districts.
Using their tactical power, tea party members last month pushed reluctant House leaders into a politically costly budget battle with Senate Democrats, triggering a government shutdown. They also threatened to force the U.S. into default on its debt, a move meant to hurt Obama’s health care overhaul and force further budget-tightening for Americans. The effort failed under a wave of public disgust.
When the shutdown ended, the Gallup polling organization showed Congress had a 9 percent public approval rating.
For a couple weeks, Obama and the Democrats were riding high. Then came the Obama administration’s troubled launch of his all-important health care overhaul, with a web portal that didn’t work and that still struggles to handle the volume of Americans trying to sign up for newly mandated coverage.
Obama’s approval rating has sunk to a new low of 37 percent, just two points above former President George W. Bush’s approval rating in his fifth year in office, according to a CBS television poll. A new CNN/ORC poll found 53 percent of Americans now say they don’t believe Obama is “honest and trustworthy.”
Some congressional Democrats, fearful of the party’s re-election prospects, are starting to distance themselves from Obama, even recently joining Republicans in voting for measures to weaken the health care law.
Adding to the fiasco, millions of people received notifications that their health insurance policies would be canceled because the plans did not meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
That went against one of Obama’s key selling points of the law: that Americans who were happy with their insurance would be able to keep it. While those losing current coverage are only a slice of the 5 percent of the Americans who buy health insurance in the private market, Obama was caught making a promise he knew he could not keep.
Obama was forced to order the cancelled policies re-instated for a year, even though the move could seriously damage the delicately balanced funding for the costly overhaul.
It’s hard to say which political party will look worse to Americans in elections next year.
James Riddlesperger, a political scientist at Texas Christian University, said the most recent trouble —over health care — is the one most likely to stick in voters’ minds. The CBS poll showed that just 31 percent of Americans now support the Obama overhaul, down 12 percentage points from a month earlier.
The Obamacare rollout mess was a political gift for Republicans, who have been determined to destroy the health care law since it was adopted in 2010, when Democrats held the majority in both chambers of Congress.
Since the Republicans regained control in the House, they have taken more than 40 largely symbolic votes to rescind the program. After the shutdown disaster, the anti-Obamacare campaign briefly seemed doomed. Now, the website woes and insurance cancellation notices have ensured that health care will be a tough issue for Democrats during the congressional elections.
Still working in favor of the Democrats is an ideological war for the soul of the Republican party that traces back decades. Some students of American politics say the disillusionment fueling the tea party dates to the 1980s presidency of conservative hero Ronald Reagan.
David Ryden, political science professor at Hope College, said Reagan had “great rhetorical success in setting the table for smaller government.” But “tangible evidence was pretty marginal” that the government was shrinking, fostering deep disappointment within the hard right-wing, he said. After George W. Bush’s eight-year presidency, many conservatives thought, “This guy did as much to expand the reach of government as anyone,” Ryden said.
The tea party sprang to life as a named entity after Obama’s 2008 victory, with the health care law becoming emblematic of their fight to limit the government’s social and economic role. Tea party loyalists also remain determined to block immigration reform and press for cuts in the government program that provides food assistance for the poor.
That puts the Republican Party in a quandary. Republican leaders are concerned that the tea partyers are alienating independent voters and other key groups, particularly Hispanics who favor immigration reform. But some mainstream Republicans are fearful of angering the party’s conservative base by pushing back against the tea party..
Amid the malaise, a recent Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans believe the country needs a third party. That number is driven by the opinions of independent voters, but large percentages of Republicans and Democrats agree.
Steven R. Hurst is an Associated Press international political writer.