Congress returns to a transformed landscape since the August recess and political conventions — with President Obama enjoying a bounce after the Democrats gathering in Charlotte and Republican Mitt Romney living through a post-convention thud.
Polls show Obama has widened his lead even as the economy raises red flags, with hundreds of thousands of Americans dropping out of the workforce last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A new CNN/ORC poll released Monday showed Obama leading Romney, 52 percent to 46 percent, among likely voters, while Public Policy Polling released a survey on Sunday indicating that Obama had united his base to command a 50 percent to 45 percent lead in the critical swing state of Ohio.
Romney theoretically could lose Ohio and still win the election if he can somehow pull out victories in a the remaining crucial battleground states. But Obama is leading Romney in seven of the eight battleground states, with the exception of North Carolina, according to averages of public polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.
Democrats have effectively campaigned against the House Republican majority for blocking additional stimulus spending on infrastructure and keeping teacher, police officers and firefighters on the payrolls of crunched local governments.
Moreover, hardcore conservative Republicans have prevented House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, from bringing up a new farm and drought relief bill, despite loud demands for action from Iowa and other farm states.
Separate efforts by GOP lawmakers to curb regulations have not resonated as much with the public. That places Romney in a tough bind. By selecting House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate, he aligned himself with a highly unpopular group of lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, whose record he cannot help but occasionally criticize.
And his campaign has borrowed two spokesmen from Boehner: Michael Steel and Brendan Buck. That means that the messaging requires a degree of finesse that’s hard at a crucial stretch in the campaign where bluntness matters.
While Obama can freely blast away at congressional Republicans for being openly hostile to his policies, as he and others did repeatedly at the Democratic National Convention last week, Romney must balance a support of his political allies with a disavowal of some their defining actions.
Romney stressed his strong opposition to the $55 billion in defense cuts that will automatically take effect next January as part of last year’s debt ceiling deal, after coming under fire for not mentioning the troops in his speech accepting the Republican nomination. Romney’s own plan would increase the defense budget and peg spending to 4 percent of gross domestic product.
But as with any compromise produced by the last two years of gridlock, when Romney criticizes Obama over the sequestration deal, which helped avert a default on federal debt last summer, he also slams House Republicans who agreed to it for a tactical error.
"This sequestration idea of the White House, which is cutting our defense, I think, is an extraordinary miscalculation," Romney told NBC’s "Meet the Press" in an interview that aired Sunday. "I thought it was a mistake on the part of the White House to propose it. I think it was a mistake for Republicans to go along with it."
And in the fading days of the congressional calendar, there is little GOP lawmakers can do to bolster their candidate. The average congressional approval rating is 13.8 percent, according to the averages assembled by RealClearPolitics.
"Congressional Republicans, particularly those in the House, should opt for an early adjournment and go back to their districts and get out of the way," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor. "They really have become an encumbrance for the Romney campaign. Certainly in farm states."
Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist, agrees that the Republicans should "get out of town as soon as possible, and keep a low profile, no gaffes, no outrageous Todd Akin-style statements [about rape], no scandals.
"Do nothing to remind the American public that you even exist, unless you are going to simply parrot Romney's themes and positions," Sabato said. "And if Romney bashes you a little bit to put some distance between himself and an institution that has 10 percent popularity, swallow your pride and take your lumps."
That doesn’t mean that GOP House members aren’t trying. In a sign of bipartisan outreach, congressional leadership scheduled a vote this week on a measure sponsored by Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., to establish a federal board comprised of manufacturing experts in order to coordinate policy to bolster factory productivity and employment. A similar measure cleared the House 379-38 in 2010 but was never considered by the Senate.
This bill’s progress would not be possible without bipartisan cooperation, a notion far too rare in the current political environment," Lipinski said.
House Republicans could not cobble together a farm bill, while Senate Democrats did before the five-month late summer recess. Neither side appears willing to settle the looming fiscal cliff before the November election, meaning that federal spending must get ready to be walloped by automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs next year.
When campaigning in Iowa last month, Obama targeted Ryan for the chamber’s inability to pass a farm bill—something the Democratic Senate did. "If you happen to see Congressman Ryan, tell him how important this farm bill is to Iowa and our rural communities," Obama said. "We've got to put politics aside when it comes to doing the right thing for rural America and for Iowa."
The trouble is that congressional Republicans might also want to appear separate for Romney if it looks like he will lose.
"If they begin to sense that that Romney is headed for defeat, they’re going to put as much distance between themselves and him as possible," Baker said. "It’s every man and woman for himself. "
That has led the Romney campaign to betting that the weak economy will be enough to pull down Obama’s numbers.
"While some voters will feel a bit of a sugar-high from the conventions, the basic structure of the race has not changed significantly," Romney pollster Neil Newhouse wrote in a memo. "The reality of the Obama economy will reassert itself as the ultimate downfall of the Obama presidency, and Mitt Romney will win this race."