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Obama's troubles haven't given GOP much to celebrate

Republican approval ratings remain far below the president's.

US President Barack Obama waves after speaking at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, Friday, May 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama waves after speaking at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, Friday, May 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)Read more

WASHINGTON - President Obama passed the 100-day mark of his second term facing questions about whether his political capital is already disappearing. Republicans took delight in his discomfort. But they have their own 100-day question to answer: What have they done since November to turn around their fortunes?

The president has had a difficult spring. His gun legislation, though it mustered more than 50 votes, was blocked in the Senate. His advisers are more optimistic about immigration reform, but the measure still faces serious obstacles, especially in the House. Implementation of his health-care law worries some members of his own party. And if there is genuine progress on the budget, no one has been able to describe it.

What do Republicans have to show politically for the president's travails? So far, there is little to suggest they have truly begun to solve the problems highlighted by Mitt Romney's loss to Obama last November, party weaknesses that were cited in a post-election report by a Republican National Committee task force.

Congressional Republicans still have far lower approval ratings than the president, although so do congressional Democrats. That is almost always the case. But Republicans also have taken positions on issues this year that have left them on the wrong side of public opinion. Those issues include background checks for gun purchases, the best way to deal with the budget (spending cuts alone vs. a combination of cuts and taxes) and, to a lesser extent, whether undocumented immigrants should be given a path to citizenship.

In a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, seven out of 10 Americans who responded said the GOP was out of touch with the concerns "of most people" in the country. Neither Obama nor the Democratic Party has sterling ratings on this question (slightly positive for Obama and slightly negative for the Democratic Party). But the Republican deficit is far bigger than that of the other two. Even 49 percent of Republicans said their party was out of touch.

Republican opposition to universal background checks for gun purchasers continues to reverberate. The opposition may threaten few individual members, given the leanings of individual congressional districts or constituencies in largely Republican-leaning states. But it is likely to hurt Republicans in areas and among voters they need to win presidential races - suburbs and female voters being prime examples.

After an election in which their nominee won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, many Republicans said it was time to find a new strategy to attract Hispanics to the party. That brightened prospects for comprehensive immigration reform, which former President George W. Bush tried to enact in his second term, only to be thwarted by his own party.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), whose conservative credentials were not in question, took the lead in working out a bipartisan proposal as a member of the Senate "Gang of Eight" that included Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

But criticism has been rising on the right, echoing complaints from conservatives that killed other reform efforts. In an op-ed he co-authored in USA Today, former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, president of the Heritage Foundation and once a strong Rubio backer, attacked the proposal as "legislated amnesty." National Review's latest cover shows the Florida senator along with two other members of the Gang of Eight - McCain and Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) - with the headline "Rubio's Folly."

Obama said Thursday in Mexico he remained optimistic an immigration reform bill would pass this year, saying the time was right for enactment. Rubio now says his proposal probably needs stronger border security measures to pass the Senate and earlier said the bill could not pass the House in its current form, presaging a rocky path ahead.

The legislative maneuvering has a long way to go. The fact that many of the Republicans who might run for president in 2016 favor immigration reform reflects concern that the party not be cast negatively when this process ends. If Republicans end up blocking the bill, or even if it passes but over significant Republican opposition, they could pay a significant price with the Hispanic community.

Republicans have not broken through on the economy or the budget. During the last three years, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) has offered a series of comprehensive budgetary blueprints, but he has yet to muster broad public support for the main elements of his package.

The fact that Obama has spent the winter and spring talking about things other than the economy has given Republicans the opportunity to begin to fill that vacuum. So far they haven't done so, rhetorically or substantively. To most voters, the Republican economic message remains focused more on green-eyeshade budget accounting than on kitchen-table concerns of middle-class families.

Rubio's engagement on immigration is an example of something that has been missing in the Republican Party's overall approach during Obama's tenure, which is a willingness to offer concrete and constructive ideas - to be for something rather than just against things - and to go out and really try to sell them.

Republican governors, from Louisiana's Bobby Jindal to Wisconsin's Scott Walker to Gov. Christie in New Jersey, to name three of the 30 GOP state leaders, have the opportunity to turn their conservative philosophy into a popular governing agenda that could be taken nationally in a presidential race. But for all the talk about the 2016 race already starting, at this point, the governors are subordinate to the party's congressional wing.

The year so far highlights the frustrations Obama has experienced trying to work his will on Capitol Hill. As long as his approval rating hovers at or below 50 percent, Republicans can look to the 2014 elections with optimism. But the year so far also points to the vulnerabilities of a congressionally based party whose members play to narrower constituencies. And as Republicans learned last year, there is often a big difference between the electorates in midterm elections and in presidential elections. A good 2014 does not necessarily mean success in 2016.