WASHINGTON - The 113th Congress has just slinked out of town for a five-week summer recess, leaving behind its lowest public approval rating in 25 years, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News Poll. A majority of voters surveyed - 51 percent - expressed disgust with their own legislators for their inability to do their job.
Only 41 percent said they were pleased with their representative, contradicting the old cliche that voters dislike Congress as a whole but revere their own congressman or congresswoman. The finding also seemed to put in doubt a continuation of the incumbency re-election rate over recent years of more than 90 percent.
Other polls and reportorial soundings in key states and districts project that the Republicans will retain their majority in the House and have a fair chance of taking over the Senate in this November's critical midterm elections. It's a prophecy that, if fulfilled, would indicate little opportunity for President Obama to end his Oval Office tenure on a late upswing.
The president's own popularity has been slipping under a withering barrage of negative allegations in the wake of the flawed Obamacare rollout and scandals at the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Veterans Affairs. The House Republicans left town tying a can to him via a lawsuit and impeachment threats over his use of executive branch powers to cope with GOP legislative inaction and obstruction.
Considering these circumstances, Obama might do well to dust off the old strategy of Democratic predecessor Harry Truman in 1948, who rode to unexpected re-election by campaigning against what he called "the do-nothing 80th Congress." On that occasion, Truman called the legislators back in session. "They can do the job in 15 days if they want to do it," he said. "They will still have time to go out and run for office."
The rump session achieved little, and Truman's Republican challenger, Thomas E. Dewey, a stiff-necked campaigner, wrote that "Mr. Truman's special session is a nuisance but I do not believe it will have much effect on the election." But what it did do was show Truman as a fighter and keep the focus on him.
When his vice president, Alben Barkley, sent him off with a cry to "Go out there and mow 'em down," Truman replied: "I'll mow 'em down, Alben, and I'll give 'em hell!" It became his winning battle cry in the fall campaign, as Dewey, eyeing the polls, low-balled his way to a stunning defeat.
However, while Obama in his own subdued fashion tries to give the Republicans hell by referring to another do-nothing Congress, there is no sign yet that he will call it back early to Washington. Instead, he has repeated his determination to issue more executive orders in areas where the opposition in Congress has failed, such as humanitarian immigration reform.
The stripped-down House immigration bill, passed in the 11th hour after Speaker John Boehner was forced for lack of support to withdraw a proposal of his own, was quickly rejected by Obama, who promised a veto. The Fiscal Times wrote that "the past few days have once again highlighted the utter dysfunction of Congress" and predicted only more "fantasy legislating and face-saving."
Yet the prospect for Obama playing the Truman card effectively this time around may well be hindered by, at best, the public's ambiguous feelings toward the president. Truman touched a chord of populism in the electorate with his give 'em hell pitch in 1948, and he was on the ballot himself fighting for his political life. Whether that approach will work for Obama as a lame duck may be a less persuasive argument.
The generally apathetic mood toward all politics that seems to have settled in as the fall campaign approaches does not bode well for either party.
Editor's note: Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow).