The ones who matter

THE ONES WHO MATTER…. If all you had to go by was Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard column, you’d likely think President Obama’s presidency was off to a horrible start. In his new piece, Kristol calls the still-unsigned stimulus package a “debacle,” and lists a series of what he sees as political fiascos, chalked up to a “lack of presidential leadership.” Republicans, Kristol argues, “have some reason to cheer” and “are relieved by Obama’s weak start.”

My sense is that much of the political establishment agrees with this. A few days ago, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said he saw the president as being “off his game,” before he looked at the polls and realized that it’s possible the pundits “don’t know what we’re talking about.”

It’s a common problem. Ben Smith explains today that the “beltway chatter” is disconnected to public attitudes: “Obama’s approval rating remains well above 60 percent in tracking polls. A range of state pollsters said they’d seen no diminution in the president’s sky-high approval ratings, and no improvement in congressional Republicans’ dismal numbers.”

And that’s before the stimulus creates billions of dollars in spending on popular programs, which could, at least temporarily, further boost Obama’s popularity.

“It’s eerie — I read the news from the Beltway, and there’s this disconnect with the polls from the Midwest that I see all around me,” said Ann Seltzer, the authoritative Iowa pollster who works throughout the Midwest.

With the stimulus safely passed, [Obama’s aides] say they’re relying on the steady support of a populace that, after a closely watched election, is tuning out the Washington cut and thrust, and views Obama as a high-minded reformer and his Republican rivals as bitter partisans.

But what about the preoccupation with bipartisanship? For all the talk from the media establishment about Obama coming up short, voters aren’t following Mark Halperin’s lead — a recent CBS News poll found 81% of Americans believing that the president is looking for bipartisanship. The number for congressional Republicans was half that. Pollster.com’s Mark Blumenthal noted, “There have been a number of different surveys that have shown that Americans perceive that Obama is extending a hand of cooperation, a hand that the Republican leadership is not reciprocating — that’s very striking in the data.”

What’s more, Smith added that Republicans waiting for a public backlash against government spending may be waiting for a long while: “In opposing en masse a stimulus bill that means instant, massive national spending, the GOP is cast as the Grinch to Obama’s Santa Claus.”

Congressional Republicans will always have Bill Kristol columns to make themselves feel better, but if they’re looking for opportunities to improve their public standing in reality, it’s the minority party that’s off to a “weak start.”

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.