WASHINGTON — If history's any guide, the Republican Party's best hope for winning back power is a public backlash against Barack Obama.
That's how Republicans came back from the edge of a political abyss in 1966, as voters started to turn against Lyndon Johnson two years after his landslide election.
That's what helped unify them in the late 1970s, when a wholesale rejection of Jimmy Carter set the stage for Ronald Reagan's sweeping victory of 1980.
It worked again in 1994, when the public turned thumbs down on the first two years of Bill Clinton's presidency and turned the Congress over to Republicans for the first time in four decades.
Whether the American people will turn against Obama is an open question. Even if they do, it could take years, well beyond the 2010 midterm elections or Obama's likely run for re-election in 2012.
However, at a dark hour for the Republican Party — when polls show voters abandoning the brand and prominent members such as Dick Cheney and Colin Powell are feuding over who's a better Republican — influential party leaders outside Washington are growing more confident that Obama has planted the seeds of his own demise — and of their resurgence.
"We are getting ready for a comeback," said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Grand Old Party in Michigan. "The Obama administration and the Democrats will overstep their bounds in terms of their election mandate."
Anuzis and other state-party officials who gathered this week outside Washington were increasingly confident that a growing number of voters will turn against Obama's liberal agenda of soaring spending, rising deficits, universal health care and a program to curb global warming that they warn would raise the price of energy.
"I think the people will have a visceral reaction and say enough is enough," Anuzis said. The tea parties are a good sign of that. There were 5,000 people who showed up in Lansing, a lot of them people I'd never seen before."
Anti-tax activists organized "Taxed Enough Already" (TEA) protests on April 15, national tax day. While Americans did protest Obama's agenda at the parties — named for the Colonial-era Boston "tea party" protest against British taxation — the president remains broadly popular. Three out of five Americans approve of the way he's doing his job, according to several polls.
Moreover, a growing number of Americans refuse to call themselves Republicans, down to 39 percent from 44 percent in 2001, according to a recent Gallup Poll. At the same time, the percentage of people who call themselves Democrats rose to 53 percent from 45 percent.
"People now aren't going to admit they're a Republican," said Bob Tiernan, the GOP chairman in Oregon.
Worried about decline, the Oregon Republican Party is preparing a 60-second TV ad to rebuild the brand by noting that Republicans created the first national park, gave women the right to vote and helped pass civil rights legislation. Several other Western state parties have expressed interest in using the ad, Tiernan said.
That approach might not play as well nationally as the party grapples with divisions in the post-Bush era, with no dominant leader. A new survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center this week, for example, found the environment slipping as a priority, especially among Republicans.
A new leader such as a presidential nominee could unify them. Obama also could unify them, particularly if they can look past what even party leaders call his personal charm and get swing voters to see only his policies.
"Folks like him," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said. "He's young. He's cool. He's hip. He's got a good-looking family. What's not to like? . . . Only one problem. He's taking us in the wrong direction and bankrupting our country."
"He still has personal popularity," said Ron Carey, the GOP chairman in Minnesota. "But when they start to look at the policies, they'll start to wonder. The personal popularity will only carry him so far."
The Pew Research Center poll found mixed opinions about the role of government. It found 48 percent of Americans thinking that the federal government should do more to help the needy even if it means more debt — a key part of Obama's agenda — which was down 6 percentage points from two years ago.
At the same time, 55 percent think that the government controls too much of people's lives, a core Republican argument. That's still a majority, but it's down 9 percentage points in the last two years.
On health care, a debate that will heat up in coming weeks, 86 percent said they thought that the federal government should do more to make it affordable and accessible to more people. Nearly half, however — 46 percent — are concerned about the federal government getting too involved.
While they're mixed, the numbers suggest some skepticism about a sharp turn to the left, and they feed the expectation among Republicans that Obama will do what Johnson, Carter and Clinton did before him: inadvertently help the opposition party.
"If the American people perceive overreaching or underachieving in the Obama administration and among its allies in Congress, the Republican way may prove very attractive again in very short order," former Republican Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee said in a recent essay published in The Washington Post. "It's happened before."
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY