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Obama Rides High at Five Months, but Clouds Gather

By Mort Kondracke

The political verdict on President Barack Obama's first five months in office has to be "so far, so good," but it also must include trepidation about clouds on the horizon.

For sure, he's popular. He's laid out a breathtakingly bold agenda that he has good prospects of fulfilling. And his opposition is in dire political straits.

But too much shouldn't be made of high approval ratings after five months. Obama's Gallup rating on June 20, at 59 percent, is exactly the average of the last eight newly elected presidents.

And that average is dragged down by Bill Clinton's dismal showing, 39 percent, in 1993 - the result of a self-created kerfuffle over gays in the military and of disarray in the White House.

Obama clearly continues to enjoy his honeymoon with voters, but history suggests that voters generally take a long time to become disenchanted with new presidents, when they do.

Dwight Eisenhower had a 69 percent approval rating at this early stage in 1953 and fell below 60 only in his second term during the 1958 recession.

John F. Kennedy had a 61 percent approval rating after five months in 1961 and stayed in the 60s or 70s until just before his assassination.

Richard Nixon was at 63 percent at this point in 1969 and remained in the 50s and 60s until a dip in 1971. He didn't crater into the 30s until 1973.

Jimmy Carter was at 63 percent after five months, stayed in the 60s until September 1977 and didn't go into the 40s until February 1978. He left office with a 31 percent approval rating.

Ronald Reagan scored 59 percent in June 1981 and remained in the high 50s and low 60s until unemployment began to spike in November 1981 in the then-worst recession since the Great Depression. He went as low as 35 percent in January 1983, but was handily re-elected.

Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, had a 69 percent approval rating in June 1989 and stayed in the high 50s, 60s, 70s - even 80s - into 1990, even before the first Gulf War in 1991, when it shot up to 91 percent. Then he lost the presidency in 1992.

Clinton had the shortest honeymoon of any recent president, falling from the 50s into the 40s by May 1993. He climbed out of his early hole, remaining in the low 50s and high 40s until his health care plan fell apart in September 1994. But he got re-elected, too.

And, despite the divisive circumstances of his election, George W. Bush had a 55 percent approval in June 2001 and stayed in the 50s and 60s until his popularity soared after Sept. 11, 2001.

Regardless of history, Obama enjoys even higher ratings in some other polls than in Gallup's - his Washington Post-ABC rating is 65 percent - and he's the beneficiary of 2-to-1 favorable stories in the mainstream media, according to the Pew Research Center.

Despite some media caviling, the public does not seem to think Obama has bitten off more than he should be trying to chew with a domestic agenda that includes health care reform, energy and environmental transformation, new financial regulation, plus the takeover of banks and auto companies.

And with a heavily Democratic Congress, Obama is likely to show results on most of his agenda - if he's willing to compromise with conservative Democrats and some Republicans on issues like health reform, energy and financial regulation.

The biggest domestic threats to Obama's success are ballooning debt and the possibility that, despite his stimulus package, an economic recovery will be delayed.

Almost all the polls show that the public's main worry is about deficit spending. Only 46 percent in the Gallup Poll approve of his handling of the federal budget deficit, and only 45 percent think he is doing a good job controlling federal spending.

Indeed, Obama's own Office of Management and Budget reported that gross federal debt - which more than doubled during George W. Bush's administration - would nearly redouble by 2019 to more than 100 percent of gross domestic product, the highest level since World War II.

Politically, big deficit and debt numbers cause worry, but their potential economic effects are the main threats to Obama's success.

Some Republicans anticipate that by the time Obama faces re-election in 2012, the public will again be focused on the "misery index" - the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate - that contributed to Jimmy Carter's defeat in 1980.

Shorter-term, there's reason to worry that just as some economic analysts are seeing the "green shoots" of a recovery, there could well be a second financial crisis brought on by defaults on commercial real estate, consumer credit and emerging-economy debt.

There's a total of $3.5 trillion in commercial real estate debt outstanding - for office buildings, multifamily residences, retail centers - of which $1.3 trillion is due for refinancing in the next five years.

And, worried analysts say the properties are highly "overleveraged," meaning loans are worth more than the property will sell for, creating the possibility of mass defaults and new pressure on bank balances.

Conceivably, this might not be the expected "u-shaped" recovery - with a steep decline followed by a long period of slow growth and eventual improvement - but a "w," in which the present uptick is followed by another decline.

If that occurs, after the public starts becoming optimistic about a recovery, as some polls show it now is, then Obama may not be able to blame the "w" economy on "W," his predecessor.

It's undoubtedly with some such calculation that Obama in his press conference on Tuesday poured cold water on budding public optimism, predicting unemployment would top 10 percent, rather than the 8 percent he previously forecast.

With the 2010 elections more than 16 months off, Democrats have a wide, 9-point edge over Republicans in generic Congressional polling.

But for his party to keep its big majorities, the jobless rate has to be heading down a year from now. In 1982, it's worth remembering, even Ronald Reagan could not keep his party from losing 26 House seats.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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