Republicans on Capitol Hill think they've finally found Barack Obama's Achilles' heel: rising public concern about government spending and the federal deficit.
While Obama's overall job-approval ratings are up over the past month, a Gallup Poll out this week has a 51 percent majority of Americans disapproving of the president's efforts to control federal spending and a slim 48 percent to 46 percent disapproving of his handling of the federal deficit.
Those are the only areas where Obama has negative approval ratings - Americans approve, by double-digit margins, the way Obama is handling his overall job, foreign affairs, terrorism, the Middle East and North Korea. But the GOP will take what it can get.
"The president is still popular, but his policies are catching up with him," said Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who, as the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, is in charge of messaging for his conference. "When that happens, it helps us make our points."
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told POLITICO that GOP candidates in 2010 will almost certainly use the deficit to argue that Democrats own a Washington mess.
"This was not an inherited situation. This was a matter entirely of this administration's and this Democratic leadership's making," Cornyn said. "In large part, I believe, 2010 will be a referendum on their performance."
When President George W. Bush left office, he left behind a $10.6 trillion national debt, which refers to the cumulative amount of money the government owes. That number now stands at $11.4 trillion, according to the Treasury Department.
The Congressional Budget Office projects that the annual deficit will grow to $984 billion for the first eight months of the current fiscal year, compared with a $319 billion shortfall for the same time period last year. In 2012, under Obama's budget, the CBO estimates that the deficit will fall to $658 billion.
Democrats argue that Bush left them with an economic mess and two wars, and they say that the country needs to spend money to get its way out of financial calamity. Eventually, they say, the government will see increased tax revenues as the economy improves, and it will be repaid by the banks and auto companies that have secured massive loans to stay afloat.
Two members of Democratic leadership - Washington Sen. Patty Murray and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer - said they're not worried about Obama's poll numbers over the deficit.
"The reason we are where we are is because of a war that was spent off budget for many years when nobody talked about the deficit - and put us where we are today," Murray said. "We are working our way out of this, and I think in the most reasonable way we can."
At the White House on Tuesday, Obama promised to cut the deficit in half in four years and decried "the reckless fiscal policies of the past." He laid out legislative plans to restore more fiscally restrictive budgeting by enacting into law so-called pay-go rules, which would require that new revenues or spending cuts accompany any new program that would otherwise add to the deficit.
"We are confronting the worst recession this country has faced in generations," Obama said. "This has required extraordinary investments in the short term. Another imperative is addressing long-deferred priorities - health care, energy, education - which threaten the American economy and the well-being of American families. We have begun to tackle these problems as well."
But some of Obama's fellow Democrats have been wary of domestic initiatives that could drive up the deficit. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a conservative Democrat from Louisiana, said Tuesdaythat she would support a private-sector model with "significant protections for consumers" for health care - but not a public option run by the government.
"If we would take that step, not only would we get health care but we would save money," Landrieu said of her preferred approach. "So that goes to the positive side of deficit reduction, not the negative."
Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, one of the Senate's most conservative Democrats, senses a risk for his party on the deficit issue.
"I do believe that we need to make every effort to get our hands around it and not let it just be on auto-pilot; then the American people will understand that, and that will eliminate part of the political risk," Nelson said. "But if it appears that there is not a strong focus on it and there is no sufficient effort to try to control it, then I think it's a major political risk."
And the Senate Budget Committee chairman, Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), was critical of the White House's pay-go plan for proposing that the budgeting process need not apply to Medicare payments to physicians, patching the alternative minimum tax and for Bush-era tax cuts.
"While I very much favor putting statutory pay-go back on the books, I don't support waiving pay-go for trillions of dollars of items that I think have to be paid for," Conrad said Tuesday.
Republicans are eager to capitalize on such concerns, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) repeatedly making speeches attacking Democrats' spending and health care proposals - a slow-build tactic similar to the one he employed over Obama's proposal to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
Said Alexander: "We respect the president, we understand he's popular, but when it comes to debt, housing credits, getting government ownership and the car companies out of Washington, D.C., a government-run health plan, we've got issues - and what's beginning to emerge, I think, is two words: Washington takeover."
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) cited a number of efforts under way to recoup costs from the economic crisis but acknowledged that Democrats need to make controlling spending part of their message.
"Part of our brand has to be, 'We know how to spend money effectively,'" Carper said.