President Obama returned from Oslo with his Nobel Peace Prize to receive a booby prize in the polls.
Continuing disturbing trends reported by other recent surveys, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds his approval ratings are down, public pessimism is up and faith in the Democratic-run Congress is on life support.
For the first time, fewer than half of Americans surveyed approved of the job the president was doing. On the question of which party voters wanted to see in charge after the 2010 midterm congressional elections, Democrats slid to a virtual tie with Republicans.
And in a particularly troubling turn for Democrats, the poll confirmed an energized right, a dispirited left and a fed-up middle that have been detected in other polls looking ahead to the midterms: The tea-party protesters who rose up in summer rallies against health care reform and government spending scored higher in popularity than either of the two major parties.
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I doubt the tea-party protesters will coalesce into an alternative political party, as some overexcited conservative pundits have suggested. But they do threaten Democrats by doing something Republicans have not been doing well in recent years: They energize conservatives.
That newly energized right might help explain why Americans who said they wanted to see Obama's health care overhaul enacted were outnumbered in the NBC/WSJ poll by those who said they preferred that Congress did nothing on health care.
Where, one wonders, is that old Obama mojo? Instead of the "hope," "change" and bipartisanship that candidate Obama promised, quite a few voters are expressing fear, rage, cynicism and despair. And that's just among Obama's supporters.
"If I were a senator," former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean angrily wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, "I would not vote for the current health care bill." Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the influential liberal blog Daily Kos, twittered his followers, "Time to kill this monstrosity coming out of the Senate."
Both were steamed about concessions Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had made in his desperate quest for a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. Particularly enraging to Democrats was Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent from Connecticut, who successfully blocked any form of government-run insurance option to compete with private insurers. After he got his way, Lieberman pressed further. He announced he no longer supported the idea of letting those 55 and older buy their way into the Medicare program. Curiously, he has supported that idea in the past, but Lieberman seemed to be enjoying his newfound power, even if it denied health insurance for millions of Americans.
And Lieberman wasn't alone. After he was appeased, conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska withheld his vote, too. He wanted stricter abortion limits. Holding a big-tent coalition of diverse Democrats is about as easy as herding wet and angry cats.
The left struck back. MoveOn.org said that it had raised $1 million in less than a week to hold Lieberman "accountable" for killing the Medicare buy-in plan. Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, and Andrew Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, were similarly upset, but stopped short of urging the plan's defeat.
That's smart. Even in its stripped-down form, the bill offers important benefits. Democrats need to let the public know that.
Among other attractions, the legislation expands Medicaid and permanently increases the federal government's contribution to it. It puts badly needed dollars into public health, wellness and prevention programs. It extends the life of the Medicare trust fund and increases the Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates for primary-care physicians. It allows children to stay on their parents' health care plans until they turn 27. It helps small businesses with tax credits for their rising health care costs.
And, according to Congressional Budget Office cost projections, the Democratic proposal would actually help reduce the federal deficit if Congress can manage to stick to its own funding and spending targets. Despite strong Republican opposition, the Democratic Congress already has made the biggest advance toward health care coverage for all Americans since Medicare's birth in the mid-1960s.
Yet somewhere during the sausage-making process of legislation, the message of how this package might help us ordinary Americans has gotten largely lost in right-left and far-right-versus-far-left disputes.
David Axelrod, Obama's chief political strategist, points out that support for the legislation surges when Americans are asked specifically about its proposed benefits. Taking the hint, Democrats eager to get their mojo back appear to be talking more about those benefits in recent interviews.
It's about time. We've heard a lot about the cost of this legislation. We need to hear more about its benefits.