At this juncture in his presidency, Barack Obama might think about taking his political cue from the title of Richard Fariña's 1960s novel: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. In the race to the bottom that American politics has become—the only question is which party will be less popular going into the November election—Obama's been written off so completely that the Democrats' electoral prospects may be starting to look up simply because they can't drop much lower.
True, with the congressional elections still eight months away, it's impossible to say whether this is some kind of a bottom or a turning point. Many unknowns could still turn November into the rout against the Democrats that everyone now expects: soaring gas prices, double-dip recession, a terrorist setback. But consider: after months of failures and embarrassing White House miscalculations, some very serious downward trend lines are starting to stabilize or even poke upward. The jobless rate, at 9.7 percent, seems to be settling in below the politically radioactive 10 percent level, and many economists tentatively suggest it could stay there. Health-care reform may or may not pass, but at least the president has decided to take his campaign for it out on the road, away from dysfunctional Washington.
And while some polls show that Obama is still vulnerable on national security, especially as his administration seems to shilly-shally over how to try terrorists, public sentiment is lagging behind some very positive facts emerging on the ground. U.S. forces seem to be going from success to success in Afghanistan and Pakistan—next stop Kandahar, Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently announced after the triumphant offensive in Marja—and the seemingly successful Iraq election may allow the president to resume his withdrawal timetable. (One big worry is whether the haggling over a new government in Baghdad will open the door to sectarian fighting, as happened in 2006 after the last national election, but "we don't see a catastrophic event on the horizon right now," Gen. Ray Odierno told MSNBC.)
In fact, it's possible the national-security issue, typically a source of GOP strength against Democrats, could become an electoral winner for Obama come November, especially with the latest internecine row among Republicans over Liz Cheney's virulent attack on Justice Department lawyers who have defended terror suspects. If the president can muster a tough sanctions package against Iran (said to be in the works), restart Mideast peace talks (the Palestinian Liberation Organization voted over the weekend to resume indirect talks with Israelis), and announce a new START agreement with Russia in the spring, the Republicans may find themselves both neutered on national security and negated on the economy.
This sort of reckoning contradicts the conventional wisdom, of course. Obama & Co. are still getting intensely negative reviews in the media, which has reached a crescendo of second-guessing. "W.H. Grapples With Turmoil," reads Mike Allen's latest in Politico. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, castigated as "the devil's spawn" by scandal-plagued Democratic Rep. Eric Massa of New York, is catching most of it. "The stupid season has arrived for Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel," Peter Baker writes in the opening paragraphs of his recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, "The Limits of Rahmism." The Democrats are still reeling from a spate of retirements, most corrosively Evan Bayh's departure from the Senate, and scandals that have forced the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, Charlie Rangel, to step aside in addition to Massa.
All this is inspiring Republicans to draw analogies to their own losses in 2006, when they were punished for George W. Bush's unpopularity, their own earmark scandals and the Mark Foley sex scandal. And yet the GOP has failed to fully exploit months of bungling by the Obama White House and the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill, excepting the lone result of the Massachusetts special election to fill Ted Kennedy's seat. National polls continue to show that around 50 percent of Americans still approve of the job Obama is doing, and the president is more trusted than Republican Congressional leaders. Even on health care, Americans place more faith in Obama's recommendations than in those of the Democratic (37 percent) or Republican (32 percent) leaders in Congress, the most recent Gallup poll shows. The GOP continues to be at odds with itself and curiously unable to capture the tea-party movement: J. D. Hayworth, taking on John McCain in Arizona, was spurned for an endorsement, and even Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman who has been the emblem of sentiment against big government for decades, has found himself accused of "going Washington."
The Democrats will lose some seats, no doubt, but it's another question whether the election is really going to be as big a catastrophe as everyone seems to think. Some longtime political observers such as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute suggest that, in the vacuum of Republican ideas, the Dems have a great opportunity to triangulate their way back to control of the center. For example, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has put forward a bold and detailed plan to cut the deficit by reining in Medicare and Social Security; despite their deficit-cutting rhetoric, very few of his fellow Republicans have dared to endorse it. "My guess is that the Democrats are going to be just smart enough to take parts of Ryan's plan and put it up for a vote, forcing the Republicans out into the open," he says. In addition, Obama and the Democrats have a chance to put the Republicans "in a box" by pointing out that they have voted both against a jobs bill and a deficit commission.
In the end the president could succeed most by failing the least. "If government starts to work just a little better, and you get some plans that are actually enacted in major policy areas," Ornstein says, Obama and the Dems could bounce back from what, in retrospect, will have been a low point.
Michael Hirsh is also the author of At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World.