Can Obama Persuade Voters to Stay the Course?

Confidence in President Obama as the agent of change to restore the economy and chart a positive course has deteriorated to the point where nearly six in 10 voters say they "lack faith in the president to make the right decisions for the country," according to the latest Washington Post/ABC poll. The president's overall approval rating remains a relatively healthy 50 percent, with Democrats backing him (82 percent), independents faltering (47 percent), and Republicans unified in withholding their support (15 percent).

Obama inherited a big mess, and people are frustrated that he hasn't fixed the economy. Counseling patience together with a show of resolve and determination helped President Reagan weather the storm in his first midterm election under conditions remarkably similar to today. Unemployment stood at 10.8 percent when voters went to the polls in November 1982, and Reagan's numbers were 49-47, almost identical to Obama's (50-47).

One key difference: Obama hasn't done as good a job as Reagan of blaming his predecessor. Jimmy Carter for years served as the GOP's version of Herbert Hoover while Obama let George W. Bush slip away into the ether, a former president so invisible that he might as well be in a witness-protection program. Bush's upcoming book, Decision Points, won't be released until a week after the November election, reinforcing the GOP's decision to keep the unpopular president out of the mix in the midterms.

The gloomy numbers mean little for Obama looking forward to 2012 as they will change radically many times over before then. The disenchantment stems mainly from the things Obama had to do to stabilize the economy, and which have been tarred as government overreach even as they worked to pull the economy back from the abyss but fell short in making life better for average Americans. Campaigning on a slogan of things could have been worse is not a winning platform.

Obama has the right message in asking voters to make a choice: do they want to go back to the policies that got us into the mess, or stick with him—and the Democratic Congress—in getting us out of the mess, however slowly and painfully. Obama is on the campaign trail for his fellow Democrats, but when a president is not on the ballot, history tells us it's hard for him to yank his party across the finish line. Reagan couldn't do it in 1982, but his slogan, "Stay the Course," kept Republicans together, and they lost a manageable 26 seats in the House and held their own in the Senate, a result that Obama would call a victory.

The disappointment in Obama could translate into a windfall for Republicans in the fall if the GOP can keep the focus on Obama's failure to meet the expectations he raised as a candidate, as opposed to their own shortcomings. One notable finding in the poll is that voters like Republicans even less than Democrats, and that was not the case in 1994, the last time the GOP engineered the kind of upheaval they're hoping for in November. The GOP then had a charismatic leader in Newt Gingrich along with a crop of insurgents that the broader electorate saw as plausible, as opposed to the Tea Party candidates getting headlines today for who can be the wackiest.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs over the weekend conceded the obvious, that enough seats are in play in the House that Republicans could take back control. But both parties are to a large extent hostage to events. "It could turn either way," says Matt Bennett, cofounder of the centrist Democratic group Third Way. "We're not by any means locked into a political reality at this point." Looking for the bright side, Bennett says the party in power never wants the president polling below 50, and Obama against all odds has maintained that base line. If BP seems under control and nothing else blows up in the world, literally or figuratively, and the economy shows a bit more juice, the political landscape could look brighter for Democrats come November—or not.