In less than two years, the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats have seen their big electoral victory of 2008 turned on its head. All signs now indicate that in three months the party will suffer a seismic electoral defeat the likes of which haven’t been seen since 1994.
How this happened/will happen is not really a mystery, but the answer is more complicated than many pundits have suggested. Herewith, therefore, are the definitive reasons.
For openers, however, let’s understand how complete the Democrats’ victory was in ’08, when Barack Obama rode a wave of enthusiasm built around his cry for “change” to an Electoral College landslide that carried over to the races in many Congressional districts. The result was an 80-vote majority in the House of Representatives (257-177) and, ultimately, when Minnesota’s nail biter was finally decided, a filibuster-proof 60 Democratic votes in the Senate.
Democrats were overjoyed, and in his first Congressional address, the new president announced a three-pronged legislative agenda, aimed at bringing about the “change” he had promised in his campaign. Those three prongs, for those who have forgotten, were medical reform, energy, and education.
Oh, and then, of course, there was the economy, which, as the president is fond of saying, was most certainly “in the ditch” when he took office. It needed help, lots of help, and the first challenge the new administration and its Congressional allies faced was to decide how to fashion that help.
It came, with nary a Senate vote to spare, in the form of a $1.7 trillion “stimulus” package that was a sop for just about everyone, with one-third of the money represented by tax cuts, one-third for “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects, and one-third for longer range federal programs that included, quite candidly, a bunch of pork or, as it has come to be called in polite circles, “earmarks.”
The package provided an immediate attack target for the out-of-power Republicans, who were already sounding warnings to their base about Obama, referring to him (through their cable news and talk radio surrogates) as a “socialist.”
The charge was based, and probably has always been based, on Obama’s liberal voting record in the Senate and not on his policy initiatives, which had hardly been formed at that point, and, in the end, were more or less centrist (perhaps with a slight tilt to the left) on the traditional American political spectrum.
But the details didn’t dissuade the Republicans from spreading the word: this was a guy who couldn’t be trusted. Indeed, picking up on that theme, the right-wing blogosphere, aided by the same usual suspects on cable TV (i.e. Fox News) and talk radio, started pushing the wholly ill-founded rumor that Mr. Obama was not born in America and was thus not an American citizen.
And around that time, the Tea Party was born. It was either seeded by Glenn Beck of Fox News, or by grass roots organizers who jumped on the rapidly increasing budget deficits Obama’s programs and initiatives were creating, or by a combination of both. Whatever its genesis, the Tea Party movement became a force to be reckoned with, at least within the Republican Party.
And the two fed energy to each other, with Republican members of Congress picking up the rallying cry of “too much government spending” in response to the Tea Party’s equally vehement cry of “too much government, period.” The combination created a national mood that flew in the face of everything Obama and the Democratic Congress were trying to accomplish.
But, instead of responding forcefully with a counter-attack, the president reverted to his Harvard Law School way of dealing with problems and policy debates: he got professorial. That persona may be the real Obama, but it doesn’t work when the other side isn’t interested in reaching accommodations.
And these Republicans are definitely not interested in reaching accommodations. As the fight over health care showed, they were out to scuttle anything that had Obama’s name on it, and they almost succeeded. Instead, on health care reform, they stalled the process long enough for grass roots opposition to crystallize so that by the time a watered-down bill was passed, well over half of the nation opposed it.
Obama must bear much of the blame for the loss of support for that bill (and for his subsequent drop in popularity). He has not used his office effectively either to rally his troops or to educate the electorate.
Skilled orator though he appeared to be during the campaign, in office he has rarely been electrifying or even particularly inspiring. When he does speak (and his press conferences and other national addresses have been rare), he sounds as if he is afraid of saying anything that might be controversial.
The result is a president who may be working very hard behind the scenes, but is viewed as something of an enigma by the voters. Thus, last week, the White House subtly let out the message that Obama will stay away from Congressional districts where his visibility will hurt the Democrat’s candidate. If that strategy sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same one George W. Bush used in “support” of Republican candidates in ’06.
But, of course, the Democrats’ election prospects are not only hampered by an inarticulate and ineffective leader in Mr. Obama.
A confluence of other events (the pending appeal of Arizona’s immigration law, the belated resolution of the BP oil spill, serious ethics charges against two veteran House Democrats, and, of course, the continually struggling economy and the near 10 % unemployment rate) are combining to create the perfect storm that will lead to the party’s loss of control of the House (a swing of as many as 60 votes now seems entirely possible) and the potential loss of even the Senate (where several key races, including Barbara Boxer’s re-election campaign in California) could provide the swing of eleven seats needed to put the GOP back in control there.
As I said at the outset, the explanation for the disaster that the Democrats are looking at three months from now is complicated. Complicated, but entirely understandable.