You don't need to be a political pollster, much less a worried Democrat, to know that the president's approval ratings have plummeted. "Down to the immediate family," we used to say mockingly, when President Bush was at about the same point. Of course, it's a little bit better than that — down to the hardcore, the yellow dog Democrats (as in, I'd rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican), but there's no denying that the bloom is off the rose, and any other cliche you can think of.
The paradox is just how "effective" the president has been, at least if you define "effective" as doing what he said he'd do when he ran for office. He said he'd get comprehensive health care reform through Congress (like every Democrat who won and lost in the past 20 years has said), but he actually did it. He said he'd push for major financial regulation, and you can also check that one off the list as done. Big stimulus package to create jobs — did that. More diversity at the top — say yes to that, with triple the number of women on the High Court (or about to be). He said Afghanistan was the important war, the one he'd focus on — and he has. He appealed to Hispanic voters by promising not to play punitive immigration politics — and his Justice Department has now sued Arizona for allegedly intruding on federal supremacy to shape immigration policy.
Like him or hate him, the one thing you can't say about Barack Obama is that he is the typical politician who makes promises he doesn't keep. He hasn't. He made promises and he kept them.
Could that be the problem?
In delivering on his promises, in doing what he said he'd do, the national debt has skyrocketed. It wasn't so many years ago that we used to sit around on campaign planes trying to figure out how to make people actually care about the debt. You could see eyes roll over as candidates started explaining the problems with a big deficit. "Mortgaging our children's future ..." Yawn. "For every man, woman and child in this country, the debt is ..." Snooze. I might be the only person in America who remembers this, but then-Gov. Bill Clinton's endless speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention was, in too large part, an effort to explain the impact of the federal deficit on our place in the world economy. Even he couldn't make it come alive. Lesser mortals couldn't come close.
No more. In recent polls, the debt now ties with terrorism on Americans' list of their big fears. The debt? Tied with terrorism. I kid you not.
This may be good news for our economic literacy, but it is not good news for the president or the Democrats. The awareness of the deficit is a sign that people are coming to understand that the country's economic problems are not going away; that the "stimulus" package stimulated more debt than jobs, or at least that's how it feels; that there is no easy or quick fix around the corner, and that every new government program — even the ones you like — just adds to the balance sheet. Even the rich have stopped spending money. The secret is out. The future is not secure.
If Democrats are to avoid disaster in November, candidates — as well as the man at the top — have to address that insecurity. They have to reckon with the increasing realization that all of the activity of the last almost two years, all the programs so many of us were for, supported and worked for, appear as a double-edged sword, at best, in current economic terms. You can't talk about how many jobs have been created without admitting how much it has cost, or answering the question where we're going to get the money to pay it back. No one's snoozing in the back of the room anymore. They're looking for some answers, and the Democrats' future depends on their willingness to address those questions openly and honestly.
Susan Estrich is a syndicated columnist. E-mail her on the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.