Party spirit in short supply as Obama turns 49

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The Independent Online

Possibly wiser, unarguably greyer, and temporarily a bachelor, Barack Obama celebrated his 49th birthday yesterday doing what has long been a way of life for US presidents of every stripe: stumping for his party's candidates, and raising money.

Mr Obama's first 19 months in the White House have been something of a paradox: a period when minority Republicans have waged unrelenting legislative warfare and when the unpopularity of Congress has reached record levels – yet also of significant achievement.

He has pushed through the most sweeping healthcare reform in almost 50 years, the most far-reaching changes in financial regulation since the 1930s, and a $800bn economic stimulus package. By the end of the week, he will have placed his second nominee on the Supreme Court, when the Senate approves Elena Kagan.

But the strain has been showing, not just in the lines on his face and the ever more numerous grey flecks in his cropped hair. His job approval ratings have tumbled from over 70 per cent when he was inaugurated to a new low of just 41 per cent, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll this week.

Some specialists argue that presidents typically biologically age by two years for every calendar year in office. If so, then the 44th occupant of the Oval Office is no exception. Indeed Mr Obama refers to it himself. "I've a lot more grey hair than last year," he said in a recent speech. Some say he has also lost weight.

Nor is a drop in popularity unusual. At a similar point in his first term, Ronald Reagan was experiencing a similar decline, and for much the same reason: a dismal economy and high unemployment. Technically the recession may have ended, but for millions of Americans it doesn't feel like it. Hence the sour national mood. If Mr Obama is already paying a price in the opinion polls, his Democrats are likely to pay an even heavier one at November's mid-term elections.

However the White House fightback is under way, and its political strategy is already clear: to blame the weak economy on the slump he inherited in January 2009, and to argue that today's Congressional Republicans remained joined at the hip with George Bush who, in Mr Obama's words yesterday, "drove the economy into a ditch."

With his wife and one daughter on a trip to Spain, and the other daughter at camp, the president travelled to Chicago for a series of fundraisers and political rallies.

He was scheduled to spend his birthday evening with old friends at his family home in the city that was his base before the move to Washington – where, needless to say, the partisan warfare continues.

Meanwhile voters in Missouri sent an ominous message about Mr Obama's signature healthcare legislation on Tuesday. In a special ballot initiative they called by a three-to-one margin for repeal of the bill's key requirement that all Americans purchase health insurance. The outcome makes it well-nigh certain that the contentious issue will end up in the courts.