It's nothing new: These two presidents' approval ratings have correlated at a remarkable .9 (1 is a perfect fit). The challenge for Obama is that Reagan continued to slide, bottoming out at 42 percent at the two-year mark. Remarkably, though, he lost only 26 House seats en route – about the average first-midterm loss, and a performance Obama may ardently hope to match.
Probably the greatest challenge for Obama and the Democrats is the extent to which they're boxed in by competing economic demands – for jobs, but against deficits, and with a sharp divide on the role of government vs. the private sector.
As big a concern as the economy is – and for many the economy above all means jobs – the public at the same time divides evenly, 48-48 percent, on whether the government should try to spend money to boost the economy in a way that creates jobs – or if this is best left to the private sector. Moreover, if spending on jobs means increasing the deficit, attitudes shift to majority opposition, 57-39 percent.
Still, another angle gets substantial support, even with concerns about the deficit – if not creating jobs, then providing extended benefits for those who've lost theirs. Sixty-two percent support another extension of unemployment benefits, even in a question that notes the view of critics that this would add too much to the deficit. Independents (59 percent) side with Democrats (80 percent), and even among Republicans a sizable number, 43 percent, agree. This issue may be one place for Obama and the Democrats to try for traction.
On regulation of the financial industry, with legislation pending in the Senate, similarly just 44 percent approve of Obama's work; on the deficit, 40 percent. These are highly partisan views, but with independents more on the nay than on the yea side.
The one item in which Obama does substantially better is a sleeper: Fifty-five percent of Americans approve of his handling of his duties as commander-in-chief of the military, a rating that's held steady since last fall. His decisive handling of the McChrystal affair may have helped shore this up; in any case, given the campaign comparisons to John McCain in this realm, the result represents an unexpected bit of balm for the president.
There's no relief, though, in the sharply partisan nature of today's politics, informed by stark divisions across policy issues. Registered voters divide evenly, for instance, on whether they're more likely or less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who supports health care reform – 39 percent to 37 percent (the rest say it'll make no difference).
They divide precisely the same on whether they're more or less apt to support a candidate who favors federal spending to stimulate the economy – 39-37 percent. And on the question of whether a candidate is associated with the Tea Party political movement, again there's an even division, with 30 percent more likely to support such a candidate, 30 percent less so.