WASHINGTON — Step by step, President Barack Obama is building a record of major legislation that's sure to make a mark on history.
The most sweeping financial regulation since the Great Depression. A vast expansion of health care, which Democrats had wanted for more than six decades. An $862 billion stimulus package that locked in long-sought Democratic priorities.
Yet his job-approval rating remains low. Why doesn't he get any credit?
First, the economy remains shaky. Second, he went farther with a big-government, big-deficit approach than some voters wanted, notably independents, who've turned against him. Third, he broke some of his own vows in the process, such as by becoming a backroom deal-making politician to get health care, alienating young idealists.
There's still plenty of time for Obama to recover and be re-elected in 2012, particularly if the economy rebounds, the unemployed start going back to work and people start feeling the benefits of his achievements in their lives.
For now, however, he's still trying to convince Americans beyond the beltway that his success in Congress will pay off for them. His fellow Democrats are worried that any eventual payoff won't come in time for their congressional elections this fall.
"I don't think he gets any credit on the economy. I don't think he gets any credit for passing the bailouts or his budgets or health care," said Brad Coker, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.
"I don't think he gets credit until things start to work. If they work, he'll get credit. They have to start working by summer or early fall of 2012 for him. But I don't know that there's time for any of it to work by this fall."
So far, Americans give the president middling grades.
Just 44 percent approve of his performance in office, according to the latest Gallup Poll on Friday, while 48 percent disapprove.
They lean against him issue by issue, according to a new Bloomberg News poll:
- On the economy, 44 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove.
The biggest problem is that unemployment remains high and people are worried about their jobs, their paychecks and their savings.
His White House reported this week that the economic stimulus had saved or created about 3 million jobs. Some private-sector economists, such as Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics, called that a reasonable estimate.
People don't buy hypotheticals, though. Obama said that unemployment would stay below 8 percent if Congress enacted the stimulus package; instead it jumped past 10 percent and is now at 9.5 percent.
They also don't see many benefits yet from such major initiatives as health care, which is being phased in over several years.
"It's hard to see how the average person can see any meaningful change in his life for the better because of these things," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa.
The White House is launching a new summertime campaign to turn that around.
In a call with reporters Friday, senior White House adviser David Axelrod stressed the achievements of the president's record, and said the political benefit would take care of itself.
"His motivation was not politics. ... Someone once said that good government is good politics, and it's certainly true," Axelrod said, referring to a quote from the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.
"There are things that relate to people's everyday lives that are going to change for the better," he said. "In so many of the things we've done, we've tried to address concerns people have in their everyday lives."
He cited the new financial regulations' protections for credit card users and mortgage borrowers, the health care law's guarantee of insurance for people with pre-existing medical conditions and the student loan overhaul's expansion of aid to college students.
Another reason Obama isn't getting credit is that some voters are balking at how much he's expanding the power and cost of the federal government.
On health care, for example, Coker said many Americans thought that the president went too far. They wanted changes, but not as many as Obama pushed through.
"They didn't want them taking over the health care system," Coker said. "Most people thought it needed some changes, but weren't necessarily ready to buy the whole package."
However, polls also found that a significant number of those who opposed the health care law did so because they thought it didn't go far enough; many preferred a government-run public option insurance plan, for example, but the law didn't include one.
Finally, in the process of getting his way, Obama's been more Lyndon Johnson than Jimmy Carter.
To get health care, for example, he broke his own pledge to conduct all negotiations on C-SPAN, and he and his Democratic allies cut deals for votes behind closed doors. Young people, who'd voted for Obama in 2008 to change politics, tuned out.
"He ran against the good old boy politics. But to get things done, he's played legislative hardball," Coker said. "So even on style points, he loses for getting most of his agenda through."
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