With the midterm elections behind him and a fractious new Congress heading to Washington, President Obama is closing out the year in a precarious spot — with his hopes for a better new year hinging on the economy.
Obama last week signed a hard-fought bill that extends Bush-era tax cuts for two years, continues unemployment benefits, cuts Social Security payroll taxes and more. The sweeping, bipartisan measure is one the White House said has the potential to create “millions” of jobs.
For Obama's sake, this second round of stimulus spending will have to deliver. So far, his policies have failed to significantly spur economic recovery, a grim truth that has eroded his once-euphoric popular support.
“He is struggling, and you know he is hoping the economy turns around and that will solve everything,” said Graham Wilson, a Boston University political scientist. “He has yet to show that he is a tough, shrewd bargainer who cannot be easily rolled.”
Wilson said it often appears that Obama “hasn't quite settled into the presidency,” that he seems “not quite comfortable,” and even tentative.
After sweeping into office with approval ratings in the 70s, Obama nearly two years later and two years away from re-election presides over a nation that is deeply divided, doubtful and fearful, and pessimistic about the future.
Sixty-three percent in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll say the country is headed in the wrong direction. While 72 percent said they like the president personally, 45 percent approve of the job Obama is doing, compared with 48 percent who disapprove.
“Obama is not the first guy to take a beating in his first term,” said Kenneth Collier, a political scientist at Stephen F. Austin State University. “I think he is adapting to his new reality.”
A big part of that new reality is an incoming Republican House majority itching for confrontation, through oversight investigations of the administration and opposition to Obama's agenda.
The Senate will have a narrower Democratic majority, and both chambers will feature newly elected members of the conservative Tea Party movement.
But the president also faces trouble from his own party. Many Democrats were critical of his tax cut deal, and some leaders, notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., were absent from the White House bill signing.
Obama's support among liberal Democrats dropped below 80 percent for the first time after he announced his tax deal with Republicans, Gallup polls show. Meanwhile, there has been no corresponding increase in his support among moderates and independents.
“Trying to give him a grade on his performance is tough because you understand the criticism, but at the same time he's between a rock and hard place,” said Kenneth Warren, a political scientist at Saint Louis University. “The economy is really bad, but you can't blame the president for that.”
Still, Obama is polling well against potential Republican 2012 presidential contenders, which may be more a reflection of what is likely to be a weak field rather than a popular endorsement of the administration.
“It's been a rough year for him,” said Joe Tuman, a political scientist at San Francisco State University. But, “I do think those who think he is in a weakened position and vulnerable for 2012 are missing the boat.”