By Steve Holland - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - High unemployment and a fractious debate over healthcare have combined to push down President Barack Obama’s job approval ratings and highlight the potential for political dangers ahead.
Obama, experiencing his first holiday season in the White House, finds himself at odds with some in the left wing of his own Democratic Party and losing the support of independent voters who were key to his 2008 election victory.
Public opinion polls show Obama’s approval rating hovering at 50 percent or lower, 11 months after he took office with a high of 69 percent approval. Majorities disapprove of his handling of the U.S. economy and healthcare.
The president and his White House team, battle-hardened from an election campaign in which they were initially dismissed by better-known challengers, are shrugging off the polls and taking the long view.
“It was inevitable,” Obama told interviewer Oprah Winfrey. “We have 10 percent unemployment. I told (my wife) Michelle when we got here that in six months my poll numbers will start crashing, so we can’t play to the polls. I‘m concerned with where we’ll be in two to three years.”
Obama gave himself a “B-plus” grade, just shy of an excellent “A” in the U.S. education system, for his work staving off an even worse economic crisis, putting U.S. troops on a path out of Iraq and improving the U.S. image abroad.
‘WORK IN PROGRESS’
Political analysts say Obama deserves credit for his steps helping to prevent the possibility of another Depression but that other challenges remain.
The president is immersed, for example, in the prolonged debate over revamping the U.S. healthcare system, engaged in efforts to reach a climate-change agreement in Copenhagen and seeking new spending measures aimed at creating jobs.
“It’s still a work in progress, and probably the best grade (for Obama) would be ‘incomplete,'” said Democratic strategist Doug Schoen, who worked in the Clinton White House.
Under pressure to create jobs, Obama struck a populist tone urging executives at leading banks this week to increase lending to small businesses, telling CBS’s “60 Minutes” show that he did not run for president to help “fat cat bankers.”
While job losses appear to have bottomed out, the country still is mired in a 10 percent unemployment rate that experts believe will remain high for months.
All this comes as Democrats gird to defend their majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate in elections next November. Republicans sense they may have an opportunity to make a comeback after devastating losses in 2006 and 2008.
“Frankly, he’s in the position that most presidents find themselves in when the economy goes south -- they get blamed for it,” said Andy Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
“Until the economy turns around, his job-approval ratings are going to be hovering in the areas where they are now, or perhaps sink a little bit lower,” he said.
Obama has spent most of the year working on a healthcare overhaul and trying to thread a needle between various conflicting factions among Democrats in Congress.
In recent days, the left has rebelled against a Senate compromise that jettisons many of the provisions liberals have demanded, first a new government-run health insurance program and then a proposal to allow people ages 55 to 64 to buy into the Medicare government insurance plan for the elderly and disabled. Americans become eligible for Medicare at age 65.
Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, a liberal and a medical doctor, said it would be better to “kill the Senate bill” as it stands because, as he told Vermont Public Radio, “This is essentially the collapse of healthcare reform in the United States Senate.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissed the complaints. He said Dean had neglected to mention the many good things about the bill, such as providing insurance for 30 million Americans who do not have it and ending what Democrats call discriminatory practices by the insurance industry.
Democratic strategist Phil Singer said he believes Obama and the Democrats would have plenty to campaign on by the time the 2010 elections roll around -- keeping the economy from cratering, a likely healthcare overhaul and a new direction in foreign policy.
“People will make a decision when they go into the polls whether we want to continue the path we are on, or whether they want to we want to go back to the type of government we had under the Republicans,” he said.
Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham