Barack Obama’s presidency is barely a year old, and the November mid-term elections are still nine months away. Yet despite the brave face worn by the White House in recent weeks, Democrats are facing a disaster of mounting proportions. If current trends hold, they may well lose control of the House of Representatives – a stunning collapse given their current 40 vote lead. Even worse, what seemed like a near-impossibility just a month ago – a GOP reconquest of the Senate – has become increasingly “thinkable” also. Political handicapper Charlie Cook, not one for wild-eyed predictions, has identified 11 Democratic Senate seats Republicans might win based on current polling. If they win at least 10, and also retain control of their current 41 Senate seats, which seems likely, the Senate is theirs.
The White House, still obsessed with its manifestly unpopular health care reform bill, is in a state of political denial so deep that not even Senator Evan Bayh’s (D-IN) shocking retirement two weeks ago – following similar announcements by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) in recent months – has managed to pierce its defensive wall.
A growing number of critics are urging Obama to fire his top staff, including White House advisor Rahm Emmanuel, whom they blame for the health care debacle, and DNC chief Tim Kaine, who funded the Democrats’ failed election campaigns in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Those failures have allowed Republicans to regain the political initiative, and have caused deep disenchantment among House Democrats who must now face the music with voters. All 435 House seats are in contention this fall, but at least 100 seats held by Democratic incumbents are considered “competitive,” sources say.
For all their recent posturing, Obama and his team know they’re in trouble. But their reliance on legislative window-dressing – like the proposed $15 billion “jobs” bill, which is anything but one, in fact – suggests they continue to underestimate the depth and source of public discontent. The current conjuncture is reminiscent of two earlier pendulum “swing” periods in American presidential politics. Ronald Reagan in 1982 and Bill Clinton 1994 both faced angry voters during mid-term years and their respective parties lost control of one (Reagan) or both (Clinton) legislative chambers. Clinton was so chastened by his party’s defeat that he quickly tacked right, embraced welfare reform and NAFTA, and drove a stake into the heart of American liberalism.
Obama is approaching his own Clinton-like crisis, but his predicament is worse. Most of the base groups that helped him win in 2008 – labor, Latinos, peace activists, and most recently, environmentalists – feel demoralized and betrayed. Labor never got the “card check” legislation it wanted, but Obama went ahead and signed three new free-trade deals that lack the domestic worker protections he’d promised during the campaign. Latinos who were hoping for serious action on immigration reform are also bitterly disappointed. First they were first promised reform during Obama’s first year in office; then, in 2010; now the issue appears to be dead. Obama has also caved into his generals on Afghanistan and backed the right-wing golpistas in Honduras. More recently, he broke a campaign pledge by publicly embracing nuclear power.
Liberal base groups aren’t ready to break with Obama – and Obama knows it. But without their enthusiastic support – and money, especially labor’s – dozens of House Democratic candidates – and now, quite a few Senate candidates – will have to fend for themselves. Moreover, younger voters, 18-29 years of age, whose turnout made such a critical difference in 2008, are fast cooling toward Obama, and won’t show up in large numbers to vote this fall, even if Obama asks them.
Of course, Obama is not the first Democratic president to disappoint liberals. But there’s usually a pay-off for abandoning your base – increased support from the center. But independents, especially white suburban voters, are abandoning Obama in droves. In November 2008, Obama enjoyed approval ratings of 70% or more, including 65% among independents. But a poll conducted by Marist earlier this month found that Obama’s overall approval rating at the lowest of his presidency – 44% – with the figure just 29% among independents. Obama’s personal popularity, or “favorability” rating, among independents, is also slipping – to just 39%, compared to 50% among the population at large.
There are two reasons why a Clinton-like shift to the center-right probably won’t help Obama. First, the country is not in a “normal” recession, or even a deep structural one of the kind that threatened Reagan’s presidency in 1982. It’s a borderline depression, and the unofficial jobless rate, currently at 18-20% and getting worse, may not improve substantially by 2012. Reagan also faced double-digit unemployment in 1982, but the official rate was back to 7% within a year. Without such a quick turnaround, Democrat Walter Mondale, who was leading Reagan in the polls throughout 1983, might have won the presidential election in 1984.
Clinton, like Obama, also faced an economic slump early in his first term, on top of a health care reform debacle. But unlike Obama, he learned from his mistake. Clinton shelved health care reform and focused on priming the economy, which recovered. He then consolidated support from independents, and like Reagan, went on to a landslide re-election. The longer Obama holds onto health care – on the desperate assumption that passing anything is better than nothing – the more swing voters are likely to punish him at the polls.
But it’s not just the persistent recession – and health care reform – that’s hurting Obama. The nation’s politics are also in a deep funk – the deepest since Watergate. Confidence in the US Congress – and indeed in any federal political institution save the military – is at an all-time low. A new mood of populist angst and disenchantment is sweeping much of the country.
Symbolized by the sudden rise of the Tea Party movement, the new mood is distinctly conservative, but still oddly non-partisan. Despite receiving early financial support from conservative interest groups, the Tea Party it’s not (yet) beholden to the GOP but is following a political dynamic all its own.
The closest analogy – in spirit and substance – might be the populist anti-establishment revolt led H. Ross Perot in 1992 that morphed into the most successful independent presidential campaign in US history. Perot shocked the American political establishment by running neck-and-neck in the polls with Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, eight months before the presidential election. Then Perot stumbled, briefly pulled out of the race, and urged his supporters to back Clinton, which they largely did. Though Perot rejoined the race, he never recovered his earlier level of support, but neither did Bush.
Republicans, perhaps mindful of the Perot “precedent,” are desperately trying to channel the grassroots energy of the Tea Party movement into their own efforts to revitalize the GOP. And so far, it’s working. Sarah Palin just headlined the national Tea Party Convention in Denver where she extolled the movement’s political independence but still urged its members to work with the GOP. Back in Washington, meanwhile, organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual conservative GOP convocation, handed their podia over to Tea Party Senate primary candidates in Arizona (J.D. Hayworth) and Florida (Marco Rubio). Their more well-known GOP opponents, John McCain and Charlie Crist, were snubbed. Some in the Tea Party are likely to resist a longer-term marriage with the GOP – or with any party, for that matter – but the foundation for a broad conservative “convergence” is now being laid.
There are other, equally disturbing, signs that a conservative sea-change is underway that could threaten Democratic control not only of Congress, but of the White House. For example:
For the first time in years, major corporate funding is shifting away from the Democrats and back to the GOP. This means that the “smart” money is no longer riding on Obama. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a national watchdog group, the wealthy securities and investment industry went from donating 2 to 1 to Democrats over Republicans at the start of 2009 to a 50-50 distribution by the end of last year. Commercial banks, meanwhile, have returned to their traditional tilt in favor of the GOP after a brief dalliance with Democrats, giving nearly twice as much to Republicans during the last three months of 2009. Most of these shifts pre-date Obama’s rhetorical attacks on Wall Street, suggesting growing corporate doubts about Obama’s “viability.”
A new “think tank” – the American Action Foundation (AAF) – has emerged to start churning out conservative policy dogma, much like the Heritage Foundation did in the early 1980s to support the incoming Reagan administration. Fred Malek, a super-rich Texas Republican who helped launch George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, is providing most of AAF’s start-up funding. Veteran GOP operatives Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie are spear-heading the group’s political direction. AAF plans to downplay the right’s social issues agenda while offering up “new” Republican approaches to the economy that can keep the GOP on a roll, eventually wooing independents to a “center-right” presidential candidate like Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty.
Dovetailing with these developments is the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on election financing that lifts the ban on massive corporate funding of U.S. political campaigns. Most of the new corporate-funded candidates are likely to be either Republicans or ultra-conservative Democrats, further marginalizing progressive ideas and voices. By 2012, the large money advantage that Obama and the Democrats enjoyed in 2008 – largely through Internet fund-raising – will vanish.
In short, for all the talk of a shift in the nation’s “zeitgeist” that occurred in 2008, it’s not clear that Obama and the Democrats will inherit this shift. With the left largely demobilized, passively awaiting “friendly” executive action, the right has stepped into the political void to co-opt the “change” mantle, while casting Obama and the Democrats as agents of the status-quo.
If the liberal-left were less wedded to Obama, and to “statist” politics generally, it might be possible to enjoin the Tea party in a broader debate about the current crisis in US politics – its sources, and possible solutions. Instead, the Tea Party’s growing “convergence” with the GOP is eerily reminiscent of the way the 1980s New Right, libertarian Republicans and neo-conservative Democrats joined forces to sweep Ronald Reagan to power.
The Right still lacks a compelling Reagan-like figure – and an over-arching political agenda – to compete with Obama in 2012. But if current trends hold, that may be only a matter of time. In a recent Gallup poll, 73% of respondents said the country was “moving in the wrong direction” – a sentiment that just two years ago helped catapult Obama to the presidency. In the same poll, a “generic” GOP candidate – in effect, any Republican – was viewed as a more attractive presidential candidate than Obama. In fact, 52% of the country – including a growing percentage of Democrats – now says Obama “doesn’t deserve” to be re-elected.
STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at email@example.com.