President George W. Obama Meets the Midterms

by Stuart Rothenberg August 7, 2014 · 9:30 AM EDT

I certainly didn’t know foreign policy would be front and center in the final months before the midterm elections when I wrote in late April that these issues “could have an indirect yet significant impact on the midterm elections.”

But now, it looks increasingly as if foreign policy — particularly problems in the Middle East and relations with Russia — will add to the president’s woes.

While international issues are a low priority to most Americans, the daily dose of bad news from the Middle East, Russia and Ukraine makes it difficult for the public to appreciate any good economic data and will likely depress the public mood. That’s important given that Election Day is just three months away (and voting starts even earlier in some states).

Obama’s problems certainly are not identical to those of President George W. Bush in 2006, when opposition to the Iraq War mobilized Democrats and independents against the White House, sinking the GOP and turning both chambers of Congress to the Democrats. And yet, it’s difficult to miss parallels between the two men and their situations.

Bush had some serious domestic challenges that also contributed to his weakness going into the 2006 midterms, including a dramatic slide in his job approval numbers following his politically deaf dealings with fallout from Hurricane Katrina.

But Obama has had his share of domestic challenges too. A majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of the economy and a plurality remain unhappy with the Affordable Care Act, even after the Administration has spent years trying to sell it. Now the president has a crisis at the border. And of course, there is the inevitable fatigue voters feel after six years of any presidency.

As uncomfortable as it will make Democrats, Obama heads into the final three months of the campaign not looking all that different from his predecessor, President Bush.

In a July 21-24, 2006, survey conducted by Peter Hart and Bill McInturff for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, Bush’s job ratings stood at 39 percent approve/56 percent disapprove. Gallup had very similar numbers in its July 28-30, 2006, survey: 40 percent approve/56 percent disapprove.

President Obama’s job performance numbers in the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted June 11-15 are only slightly better at 41 percent approve/53 percent disapprove. And that survey found only 37 percent of respondents saying they approved of the job the president was doing handling foreign policy, while 57 percent disapproved.

A July 23-27 ABC News/Washington Post poll found a plurality of Americans disapproving of the president’s handling of international affairs (46 approve/50 percent disapprove).

Of course, the current occupant of the White House has one thing going in his favor that Bush didn’t have heading into his second midterm election: a divided Congress.

Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the White House going into the 2006 midterms, so it was easy for Democrats to blame everything on Bush and his party. The current control of Congress — a Republican House and a Democratic Senate — makes it easier for each party to point fingers at the other for the country’s shortcomings.

That, plus the GOP’s proven ability to pull defeat from the jaws of victory, could help Democrats avoid the worst possible outcome.