-- Decline in the Real Clear Politics average assessment of “right track/wrong track” in polls since the measure’s 41-month high on Dec. 7, 2012.
What’s the matter with Americans?
The economy is getting better (or at least it’s not getting worse), stock markets are up, up, up and Washington is ooching toward the first full-year budget deal since 2007. The sequestration scare has for now faded into the stuff of late-night comedy punchlines, unemployment is drifting back down to 2008 levels and home prices are zooming up.
By conventional political wisdom, people should be happier and more optimistic: higher net worth, better job prospects and more fiscal certainty. But instead, pessimism and dissatisfaction are on the rise.
Average disapproval of President Obama’s job performance is up 6 points since it’s post-re-election low and, more ominously, concerns about the direction of the country are skyrocketing. Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike are growing increasingly concerned about the direction of the country.
We are seeing now something similar to what we observed after President Obama’s first election, only faster.
Starting with Obama’s 2008 election and through the first half of 2009, Americans grew increasingly optimistic. The Real Clear Politics average on “right track/wrong track” assessments reached a tie on June 10, 2009, closing a gap of 47 points from the beginning of the year. On the same day in June of 2009, Obama was still riding a 26-point advantage in his average job-approval rating.
Then, as now, the first to bail out were Republicans who found Obama more liberal and less inclusive than he had promised. In the post-re-election version of the slide, there were still a few folks who wanted to believe.
But Obama’s ratings and overall optimism were still in happy territory for the whole of the winter and spring of 2009. But once those measures started breaking bad, they did so with a vengeance.
There has not been one day in Obama’s presidency on which optimists outnumbered pessimists. At its low ebb in October of 2011, the average share of Americans who believed the country was going in the right direction cratered at 17 percent.
At that moment, conservatives were still unhappy and liberals had just watched their champion stagger to a bloody draw in a budget fight with House Republicans. Meanwhile, the economy was faltering again, making pretty much everybody else gloomy.
Much of the steep slide in the president’s job approval in his first year can be attributed to over promising as a candidate and under delivering in office. After moderate Republicans abandoned the president, a similar disappointment ate through centrist independent support and even among some Democrats.
(There’s less of that disappointment this time around since Obama ran a campaign principally about disqualifying his opponent.)
It was the president’s final push to pass his unpopular health law three years ago that put the president in the job-approval red zone. After the “recovery summer” that wasn’t, Americans grew annoyed as Obama and a Democrat-led Congress jumped down the rabbit hole of a new health-insurance entitlement program for six months.
As a result, Obama and his party got clobbered in the Midterm elections. Midterm voters, who tend to skew more Republican than those in presidential years to begin with, delivered a brutal beating to Obama’s ambitions as independents shunned the party in power.
At the start of 2011 as the economy improved and Obama found a fabulous foil in his new House adversaries, the president’s job rating rebounded into positive territory. Voters remained about as pessimistic, but the president, fresh off of a tax deal with Republicans, found surer footing.
Obama saw his stock and optimism surge with the killing of Usama Bin Laden that spring, but the glad tidings proved temporary. And 2011 saw the same cycle repeat again as the economy faltered and Washington descended into deeper dysfunction. Pessimism and disapproval shot back up and stayed there.
Once the 2012 election cycle was underway, Obama again benefited by a comparison to a Republican foil. With a partisan bandwagon effect at work and voters suspicious of Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Obama saw his approval rating rise back into neutral territory. The economy was stable and Republicans had agreed to a truce in the fiscal fight until after the election.
Happy days were here again, but only for a matter of weeks. Optimism and Obama’s job approval both soared after his re-election as a grateful nation expressed its thanks for the end of the most awful presidential election in memory.
Obama came out swinging, pushing a suite of tax increases and big changes on the top liberal priorities: gun control, gay marriage and global warming. Obama’s new aggressive stance carried over to automatic reductions to automatic increases in federal spending, with the president doing his darndest to punish Republicans for the consequences of the 2011 debt deal he had struck.
Meanwhile, the most consequential but least discussed part of Obama’s December tax deal – an across-the-board increase in federal payroll taxes – kicked in. As households in the median income range saw their take-home pay drop by $40 a week, gas prices shot up by 50 cents.
U.S. personal income dropped 3.6 percent in January, the steepest decline since 2006. At the same time, the cost of a tank of regular unleaded climbed by $10. While this combination was sinking its teeth into the wallets of middle-class Americans, the president was pushing a more liberal agenda and demanding more federal spending despite growing concerns about debt.
Voters, predictably, recoiled.
As Democrats look to defend a growing number of potentially vulnerable Senate seats next year – now at least 10 – concerns about a repeat of Obama’s first-term boom and bust are growing too.
The president is preparing pushes on gun control and immigration and his administration is fully engaged in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage. The summer ahead promises a lengthy, bitter budget debate. Democrats can debate whether Obama needs a budget deal to ensure his presidential legacy, but there’s little doubt that six months of bickering over spending and debt will do little to help the party next year.
If the economy disappoints again, especially with voters suffering with smaller paychecks, just as the disruptions from Obama’s health law are kicking in, Democrats could suffer a similar, if smaller, spanking in 2014 as they did in 2010.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.