Superficially, the United States appears to have a presidential system, but in fact it more and more resembles a parliamentary form of government. When a president loses the approval of the majority of the voters and polls reflect that his ratings have fallen substantially below 50 percent, he loses his power.
In this context, polls are like parliamentary votes of no confidence in European systems. While the government does not fall if it loses in the polling, it limps on until either its ratings improve or it is voted out of office at the next election.
President Bill Clinton was called "irrelevant" after the congressional defeats of 1994, when his ratings hovered in the high 30s. George W. Bush seemed almost out of power in the last years of his administration, when his approval dropped to the low 30s.
Now President Barack Obama faces the loss of power that comes with dropping poll numbers. The two early symptoms of this creeping impotence are his inability to pass the union card-check legislation or to force action on healthcare before the August recess, once highly touted administration goals.
As is usually the case, the apparent cause of these defeats — the buildup of public disapproval of both bills — is not what is really at work. Rather, it is the president's obvious inability to improve the economy that is exacting the daily toll in his approval ratings evident in all of the surveys. Like the body counts that mounted in Iraq and drove Bush's numbers ever downward, the rising unemployment numbers are stripping Obama of his popularity and power.
Obama's very activism in promoting the stimulus package in January as a cure-all has set him up for failure now that he cannot deliver on his overblown promises. Unlike Clinton's presidency, Obama's cannot be rescued by good public relations. His obvious failure to turn the economy around drags him down at every turn.
Will the group of moderate Democrats that is increasingly blocking his programs prove to be a lasting coalition? As long as Obama's economic failures continue, they will grow and harden in their opposition to his radical agenda. Once their president's popularity tanks, Democratic centrists will not look forward to running in an election defending his policies. The race to distance themselves from his failures will be on.
That's not how Republicans work. Among the GOP, the tendency to hunker down and follow the leader into oblivion is all too obvious. The elections of 2006 and 2008 provide vivid examples. But Democrats, particularly those who sit nervously astride red states, are not made that way. Their proclivity toward dissent and independence, muzzled in times of presidential popularity, emerges when approval ratings drop.
Despite having 60 votes in the Senate, it is a serious question as to whether Obama will be able to get his controversial programs passed in the fall. The public mood is congealing against his healthcare proposals, and skepticism over the impact of cap-and-trade on American manufacturing is growing.
While voters are idealistically determined to cover the uninsured, they are more selfishly concerned about their own healthcare. And they are loath to trust the man who sold them on the stimulus package when he says that their care will be protected. More and more, they are asking the very simple question that Obama cannot answer: How is he going to cover 50 million new people without more doctors?
The elderly are coming to understand that his plan effectively repeals the bedrock guarantee in Medicare that seniors can get whatever care they want for free. The opposition to healthcare changes is building so fast that Obama was forced to retreat from his August deadline. And it's unlikely that he will be able to make a successful stand in September or October, when his ratings will likely be 10 points lower than they are today.