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Mosque distraction is one Dems don't need

The flap created by President Barack Obama's comments on the controversial proposal for an Islamic center near New York's Ground Zero is the kind of unnecessary distraction struggling Democrats hardly needed.

At a time Obama's job approval is lagging and polls project decreased Democratic turnout in November, it created another burden for candidates who are being pressed to choose between the president's views and public opposition to the project.

But it doesn't change the basic problem Obama and the Democrats face in the mid-term elections less than three months away.

It's that the economy's failure to rebound vigorously from the deep recession Obama inherited threatens the administration's basic assumption that success in passing his major initiatives would produce results that would pay political dividends at the polls.

So far, the political impact of passing key Obama proposals seems more negative than positive. Multiple polls show the public gives low grades to Congress; Democrats say it's despite its record; Republicans say it's because of it.

In last week's NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, only 21 percent gave the Democratic-controlled Congress a positive rating, about the same mark as the Republican Congress got before voters ousted it in 2006. Only 6 percent rated the current Congress above average; 32 percent called it "one of the worst."

There are several explanations. Democrats, who strongly support Obama's agenda, say a big problem is that much of it is designed to produce long-term benefits, rather than immediate ones. They believe that's made it harder to sell it publicly.

Republicans contend Americans don't like what's been done and want to undo it. Polls show many critics fault Obama for failing to end the recession and curb federal spending.

In any case, the economy will continue to overshadow everything else until the public becomes convinced things are clearly getting better. Even Democrats acknowledge that has not happened.

Each of these arguments has some validity.

Regardless of how one views the product, it has been a productive Congress. Of Obama's major campaign and presidential initiatives, three far-reaching measures have been enacted: economic stimulus, health care reform and financial regulatory reform.

Republican resistance has stalled two others by making it hard for Obama to put together the required 60 votes in the Senate: an energy bill aimed at climate change and a comprehensive immigration measure.

Many changes from the health care and financial reform bills won't affect most Americans for years. The health measure, while more popular than when it was passed, remains controversial.

And while many economists say the recession would have been worse without the stimulus bill, the administration hurt itself by predicting it would hold peak unemployment to 8 percent, a forecast that in retrospect looks foolish and unrealistic.

Meanwhile, Democratic liberals complain Obama has failed to change Washington as he pledged. They say he should have pushed the "public option" health care plan, even though it lacked the votes, and wanted him to move faster to end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays and lesbians.

Labor unions wanted a measure making it easier to organize workers.

The resulting disillusion, though based some on unrealistic expectations, has made some core Democratic voters less motivated to turn out than in 2006 or 2008. That's especially true for younger and minority voters who generally vote less reliably in non-presidential elections.

Besides, Democratic support has dropped sharply among independents, who supported the party strongly in 2006 and 2008. Polls suggest a major complaint is that Obama increased spending and the deficit without cutting unemployment.

Against this backdrop, the mosque controversy hardly helps. But Democrats can take some comfort from the fact that history indicates their long-term prognosis may be better than this year's.

Obama's job rating in the low 40s is roughly similar to those of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton before the 1982 and 1994 elections. Both suffered significant mid-term defeats — but rebounded to win re-election two years later.

By 1984, Reagan's prescriptions looked better as the economy rebounded from a recession that dogged him two years earlier. By 1996, two years of Republican congressional control bolstered Clinton's standing.

Democrats believe both scenarios can happen again.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.