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As if to make the point vividly clear that summer is unofficially over, the skies of Washington on Tuesday were a metallic gray, with a cold breeze blowing and rain peppering the ground. It had the feel of seriousness, of stakes raised. And no one likely will understand that more this week than President Obama.
Thursday’s joint address to Congress will bring what could be perhaps a pivotal moment in his presidency, with the nation looking for his best proposals to help move the country out of the economic stall in which it has remained for months.
At the same time, Congress reconvenes to begin to shape a bipartisan plan for slashing the federal deficit. The so-called “supercommittee” meets for the first time Thursday as well. Whether lawmakers can deliver a meaningful, achievable solution could also have an effect on how voters view the president’s capacity to match words with results.
And if the nation needed any more of a reminder that we live in perilous times, the week will also feature incessant replays of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in advance of Sunday’s anniversary.
The challenge facing Obama has never been in more stark relief. A batch of new polls show Obama at the nadir of his presidency, with almost three-fourths of those surveyed believing the country is heading in the wrong direction. Those numbers come in concert with a steady stream of disappointing economic news.
"Obama is no longer the favorite to win reelection," said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
That poll showed the president’s approval ratings skidding to 44%, with even worse marks for his handling of the economy and his overall leadership. An ABC News/Washington Post poll had similar marks, putting the president’s approval rating at 43% while a Politico/George Washington University poll has him at 45%.
The collective bottom line: More and more Americans now view the president and the job he’s doing in a negative light.
If there is good news for Obama it’s that election day 2012 remains more than year away. And that in head-to-head matchups with Republican favorites Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, he holds his own—a reminder that voters don’t make decisions in a vacuum. But he would lose today to a generic Republican, (whatever that might be these days), according to the NBC/WSJ poll.
The president also continues to hold a large reservoir of personal popularity. Voters like Obama, but they question his ability to turn the nation around.
Congress isn’t about to make that any easier, of course. Nor are Republicans on the Hill benefiting from the president’s downturn. They’re even more unpopular, polls say.
But the GOP’s poor marks won’t make it any easier for Obama to get a jobs plan through. And that’s why his speech Thursday is likely to be as much an electoral threat as a blueprint for job growth. The president said as much in his Labor Day speech in Detroit.
“I’m going to propose ways to put people to work [that] both parties can agree to,” Obama said. “We’re going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before politics.”
But will rattling a saber at Republicans be enough to satisfy Americans who, in every survey, express their profound disgust at Washington’s polarized environment and clearly want someone to get something done? The president Thursday will have to propose a plan that looks reasonable, doesn’t threaten to increase the deficit further, could yield results yet lays down a marker in case nothing happens.
Perhaps most important, he’ll have to come off as the man voters trust to lead the country through yet another tough stretch.
While the White House this week will try to manage expectations for the speech, the truth is that there is almost no way the pressure can be any heavier on Obama than it will be Thursday. And it's worth noting that he chose to raise the table stakes himself, both by declaring last month he would offer a major job-creation package and by deciding to address Congress in an evening setting.
How Obama bears that weight could have a lot to say about whether his now-endangered presidency survives to reach a second term.