Henny Youngman, the late borscht belt comedian, told hundreds of politically incorrect jokes. One of them was his response when asked, “How’s your wife?” “Compared to what?” he’d say.
Many women find the joke tasteless, but it can be a useful framework for thinking about national politics. Americans may not be ecstatic about President Obama and his policies, but compared with the Republicans, they think Obama doesn’t look so bad. This might partly explain why, even with all of the controversies engulfing the Obama administration these days, the president doesn’t appear to be hurt at all, at least as measured by job-approval ratings.
The numbers paint a picture very different from most congressional Republicans’ view of the world. Obama’s job-approval ratings are pretty much where they have been for the past few months, before the controversies over Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Associated Press began dominating the news two weeks ago. The May 17-18 CNN/ORC poll pegs Obama’s job approval at 53 percent, up 2 points from early April. The Gallup Organization’s polling for the week of May 6-12 showed that 49 percent approve and 44 percent disapprove of the president. For the following week, May 13-19, the numbers were precisely the same. The three-night average ratings for May 20-22 were 50 approve, 44 disapprove. Obama’s numbers have been within the same range for months. His job-approval rating, according to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, released May 21, is still hovering around the same place, at 51 percent.
More troubling for the GOP should be the CNN poll in which only 35 percent of respondents said they view the Republican Party favorably and an incredible 59 percent said they view the party unfavorably. In CNN polling, dating back to 1992, neither party has had an unfavorable rating higher than 59 percent (the GOP hit 59 percent one other time). Democrats are hardly riding high—recording 52 percent favorable/43 percent unfavorable ratings—but they’re doing a heck of a lot better than Republicans in the public’s eyes.
When the May 16-19 ABC/Washington Post poll asked respondents whether each party is “mainly concentrating on things that are important to you personally,” 43 percent said the Democrats are concentrating on important things; 50 percent said they’re not. Just 33 percent said they believed the Republicans are concentrating on important things, however; a whopping 60 percent said they aren’t.
What’s most telling is where Obama scores well with voters and where he does not. When asked whether they thought each of seven phrases did or did not apply to Obama, he rated best with “is likable,” at 79 percent. On “honest and trustworthy” and “is a decisive leader,” respondents scored the president at 58 percent. “Is not a typical politician” came in next, at 54 percent. His bottom three ratings were “can manage the government effectively” (52 percent said it applied, 47 percent said it did not); “generally agrees with you on issues you care about” (51 percent to 47 percent); and “generally agrees with your views on the size and power of government” (48 percent to 50 percent).
Basically, Republicans are attacking Obama where he is least vulnerable and at a time when they have minimal credibility. It isn’t working. By trying to turn everything into a scandal rather than saying Obama’s policies are wrongheaded—and rather than fixing their own image problems with minority, female, younger, and moderate voters—Republicans are focusing on attacking a guy whose name will never again appear on a ballot.
The current situation is reminding many folks of the impeachment controversy in 1998. Blinded by their hatred for President Clinton, Republicans made irrational decisions then, and they are making the same mistakes today. For some House Republicans, their view of the president is a natural by-product of representing districts that are custom-drawn, conservative cocoons, where everyone pretty much thinks the same. These districts aren’t representative of the nation as a whole. I am constantly amazed at the number of Republican members of Congress who thought, all the way up to Election Day, that Mitt Romney would win.
Most Americans are becoming more hopeful that the economy is improving. The value of their homes and retirement accounts are increasing; the stock market is at a record high. They may not think the president has done a great job. But compared with congressional Republicans, he’s the pick of the litter.
This article appears in the May 25, 2013, edition of National Journal as A Glass House.