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Obama's Tattered Coattails

A rough election year awaits congressional Democrats.

11:00 PM, Nov 26, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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Democrats in Congress may need redemption with voters next year. But can President Obama save them?

Some strategists believe replicating the model that produced Democratic gains in the past two election cycles--a combination of mobilizing new voters and independents, along with an energized party base--is the answer.

Victories over the past four years even convinced some an enduring Democratic majority had emerged. President Obama's 2008 win only punctuated that ascendancy.

Others believe dancing on the Republicans' grave is premature. Sinking the GOP was an easy target when the party had controlled the White House since 2001. Republican unpopularity--in an environment where the GOP was viewed as responsible for everything that went wrong--was the real culprit, they say. According to this view, Republican peccadilloes, not the popularity of Democratic policies, sank the GOP.

The 2009 gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey also clipped the wings of a soaring Democratic realignment thesis. The two theories will undergo another exam next November, but some early quizzes provide initial results.

First, this year revealed that controlling all levers of power endangers a party's political health. It haunted Republicans in 2006 and Democrats in 2009.

Obama and his party in Congress appear like the dog that caught the car. They seem flummoxed by what to do regarding a sluggish economy. And they participated in a host of government missteps, ranging from the swine flu vaccine roll-out fiasco to the intelligence lapses leading up to the Fort Hood tragedy. (Interestingly, many in the main stream media resist "blaming" President Obama for these governmental failures in the same way they heaped culpability on George W. Bush following events like Hurricane Katrina. But that's a subject for another column.)

Evidence demonstrating the risks of one-party control abound. Gallup reported last week that President Obama's approval continues to decline, sinking below 50% for the first time. Moreover, in September another Gallup poll found "trust in Congress"--controlled by Democrats since 2007--had dipped to its lowest point since the polling organization began asking the question.

And while their signature health care reform measure continues to advance in the legislative process, its popularity steadily declines with the public (the latest Quinnipiac and Fox polls each show approval of the legislation at 35 percent and disapproval at 51 percent). Many political professionals in Washington can't recall Congress ever enacting an initiative with support that low. Still, Democrats and the White House push ahead.

Yet public opinion on complicated policy matters is notoriously fickle and volatile. Enacting health care reform could be interpreted as a big legislative "win" for Democrats and the White House, immediately boosting the president's standing and public approval of the legislation. But it's also possible passage might enrage voters even further, underscoring how Democrats in Congress are out of touch with public preferences on the issue.

Second, political mobilization successes that propel one party into power are usually followed by counter-mobilizations against them. This year's Tea Party movement and other demonstrations of public opposition to the Obama/Democratic agenda are examples of Americans choosing activism in response to political events, much in the same way citizens mobilized for the Obama campaign last year.

Third, independent voters don't make life commitments to either party. Swings in voter preference between 2008 and 2009 in New Jersey and Virginia are illustrative. Both Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Cristie in New Jersey won among independents by a two-to-one margin, (66%-33% and 60%-30%, respectively), after Republican John McCain lost independents in each state a year earlier.

Democrats in Congress walking in lockstep with the president are doubling down on a theory based on shifting sand. The electorate in 2009 looked different than it did in 2008. In both New Jersey and Virginia, voters 18-29-years-old represented about half the share of the electorate in 2009 compared to 2008. What happens to Democratic congressional candidates in 2010 if younger voters either shift their allegiance marginally in the GOP's direction, or they just stay home?