WASHINGTON — The weekend in Florida was conceived to soothe one distraction — the gulf oil disaster — but only intensified another.
"I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there," President Barack Obama told reporters after landing in Panama City on Aug. 14, backtracking from what he said the night before about the right of proponents of an Islamic center to build near ground zero.
The messy foray into a controversy he previously avoided underscores the problem Obama has faced since taking office 20 months ago. The focus he displayed on the campaign trail and the promises he made are colliding with the reality of governing.
Engulfed by the biggest economic downturn in a generation, Obama, 49, has been challenged by forces both out of his control (the oil) and within (the mosque). He has had to straddle rival factions in his own party, and endure lockstep opposition of Republicans.
Despite a remarkable series of legislative victories, his approval rating has fallen under persistent unemployment.
All of which set up grim midterm elections for his party in November. Democrats face severe losses in the House, perhaps a GOP takeover, and the Senate majority could be in jeopardy as well.
"It's gone from bad to worse," said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, who cites the mosque flap as an example where Obama showed poor judgment.
"Political Science 101 is, don't go looking for trouble," Jewett said. "Why wade into something that you don't need to?"
The party that controls the White House almost always loses seats in midterm elections, 2002 being a recent exception when Republicans were seen as better on national security after the 9/11 attacks. But the economy makes 2010 especially perilous.
"It's sort of hard to look around and say things stink and not take it out on the people in charge," said Mark Mellman, a national Democratic pollster, who argues the Obama administration should have tried "anything and everything" to improve the economy.
• • •
It was not supposed to play out like this.
By now, with the public starting to focus on the midterm elections, the $814 billion stimulus package (originally calculated at $787 billion) was to have tangible results. Unemployment was supposed to have peaked at 8 percent.
Instead, unemployment deepened and the stimulus benefits remain hazy to the public, even as economists generally agree things would be worse without it. Health care reform has been a difficult sell, too, with many of the benefits years away.
"Hopeful people aren't interested in passing legislation," Mellman said. "They are interested in the end benefits."
Some blame Obama for not articulating the message better. The rhetorical grace of his campaign has given way to a professorial tone that has at times lacked emotion and force.
"He comes at a lot of these things from a Jimmy Carter perspective," Jewett said. "Very bright, very detail oriented and thinks everyone should see it as the right way."
Messages only go so far. Ronald Reagan, the "great communicator," could not spare Republicans from deep losses in 1982, a close resemblance to today's climate.
There was a recession, unemployment exceeded 10 percent and the president's approval fell to the 40s. Where Obama has offered big spending plans to bail out the economy, Reagan proposed big tax cuts.
Republicans lost 26 House seats, nearly all they had gained in 1980. But they were already the minority party. In 2010, Democrats run the risk of losing their majority if Republicans win 39 House seats, not an impossible feat.
• • •
Obama's defenders are confounded by the disconnect between his accomplishments, including the health care reform that eluded so many administrations, and lack of public support.
"I don't know who to blame for that. Perhaps the press or perhaps us supporters haven't done enough," said Miami lawyer Kirk Wagar, who was Obama's Florida finance chairman in 2008.
Wagar described a fatigue that is common among Democrats. They felt tired after the election and were disillusioned by the Republican playbook that followed: Oppose everything.
The GOP in turn made health care, the stimulus and financial reform distinctly Democratic ideas, dashing Obama's promise of postpartisanship and seeding fears about big government and socialism.
"They have been utterly cynical in their refusal to participate in governing at a time of national crisis, but it has paid dividends in the short run," said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the centrist-to-liberal Brookings Institution.
"The public, which has long had very low levels of trust in government, has been frightened by the ambitious actions taken to try to stabilize the financial system and stimulate a moribund economy and is vulnerable to arguments that it was all for naught."
• • •
If Republican opposition weren't enough for Obama, he also faces conflict within his party.
Moderate Democrats are sharing concern about government spending, which limited the size of the initial stimulus and all but kills prospects for the additional spending some economists contend is needed.
Liberals, meanwhile, saw the 2008 election as a mandate for sweeping change and have been frustrated by Obama's attempts to compromise on aspects of health care reform, including abandoning a government-run system and not being tough enough on prescription drugmakers.
While Obama has overseen a troop drawdown in Iraq and has set a timetable for withdrawal in Afghanistan, liberals demand more immediate action.
"We had an opportunity to make a real change," said Susan Smith, an activist from the Tampa area. "But we tinkered around the edges. It makes it very hard to go to voters when we don't have anything to offer them. They haven't seen the change they were promised."
Democrats face a serious enthusiasm problem in the coming elections. A Gallup poll taken in late August found voters prefer a Republican candidate for Congress over a Democratic one 51 percent to 41 percent, the largest margin since Gallup started looking at a generic ballot in 1942.
Already, Republicans have shown they are more motivated to vote. U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio of Miami, who had token opposition in the GOP primary after Gov. Charlie Crist left the party, got about 150,000 more votes Aug. 24 than the Democratic Senate candidates combined.
Florida Democrats counter that they have assembled an exciting ticket in state elections, topped by Alex Sink for governor. But Democrats can't count on Obama as they did in 2008, when they rode his coattails to victory. Sink tacitly acknowledged the liabilities at a recent fundraiser in Miami by carefully avoiding being photographed with the president. As Obama was in Panama City trying to tamp down the controversy he stirred over the mosque, Sink issued a statement saying it should not be built so close to Ground Zero.
• • •
During the 1992 presidential campaign, strategist James Carville hung a sign in Bill Clinton's office that served as a reminder to stay on message: "It's the economy, stupid."
It has become a tired phrase in American politics but one that rings true today, and many think Obama lost sight of that in 2009 as he engaged in the bloody, protracted battle over health care.
Last week, as he addressed the war in Iraq from the Oval Office, Obama seemed to take note. Restoring the economy and jobs for millions of Americans is "our most urgent task," he said. "In the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president."
It is likely too late to prevent deep Democratic losses in the midterm elections, but Obama's performance on the economy could greatly determine his own re-election hopes.
Amid the gloom, he can take comfort in another lesson from history. The midterms rarely say anything about the subsequent presidential election.
Reagan in 1982 and Clinton in 1994 sustained deep midterm losses but went on to easy re-election.
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.