Obama: A Party of One

National Journal

If there was any question about how President Obama views his role as the leader of the Democratic Party over the next four years, his Inaugural Address cleared up any confusion. It was a bold, ambitious wish-list for progressives, putting climate change, gay rights, and gun control at the top of his second-term agenda. These are issues that drive at the passions of his winning electoral coalition in 2012, but are a very tough sell to the red-state Democrats in the Senate, six of whom are up for reelection next year.

Combined with his campaign officials’ decision last week to split apart from the Democratic National Committee to form their own 501(c)4 lobbying organization for the president’s agenda, it’s evident Obama believes he can mobilize his supporters to rally behind his pet proposals — any Democratic skittishness be damned. And he’s betting that the demographic changes that propelled his 2012 reelection victory will reemerge in full force for the upcoming midterms.

The challenge for the president is that the political environment in 2014 could end up looking more like 2010, when Republicans recorded a historic landslide thanks to the president’s overreach on health care and cap-and-trade legislation. Combine the tendency for midterms providing a more GOP-friendly electorate, the large number of Senate Democrats on the ballot in deeply conservative states, and the president’s open signal that he’s chasing a progressive legacy, and the seeds could well be planted for trouble ahead.   

Last year, Republicans learned the hard way that lessons from the 2010 midterms weren’t translatable to 2012 — the types of voters who showed up at the polls were demographically different from the presidential cycles. In 2010, 77 percent of the electorate was white; in 2012, that number dropped to 72 percent. Young voters under the age of 30 made up a scant 12 percent of the 2010 electorate, but nearly comprised one-fifth of the vote in 2008 and 2012. Those who believe the Democratic Party is ascendant believe the longterm trend lines are clear: The emerging parts of the electorate favor Democrats and Republicans are doomed to irrelevance unless they move to the center, pronto.

But the changing nature of the Democratic coalition also means the party is dependent on these traditionally apathetic voters — under-30s and minorities — turning out in nonpresidential years to protect the president’s congressional wing. In 2012, they proved that they were energized to support Obama for another term, even under tough times. They haven’t yet shown they will show up in off-year elections, even as they’re essential to pass his second-term agenda.

Making things more complicated for the White House is that, perhaps for the last time, the majority-makers in this cycle’s Senate class hail from the declining moderate-to-conservative wing of the party, and their survival is dependent on keeping at least some distance from the president. Yet with most Senate Republicans instinctively opposed to helping Obama, the success of his legislation is dependent on enough of them taking one for the team. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told TheWashington Post that at least 10 members of his caucus would take a major hit over gun control.  He’s been suspiciously silent on the White House’s proposals.

There’s a good reason why Obama’s former campaign advisers are setting up their new lobbying vehicle outside of the Democratic National Committee: They fully understand their own interests aren’t always aligned with the party’s. In 2012, even as the president shunned campaign stops and fundraising events for down-ballot Democrats, disappointed party officials kept silent, knowing that a rising tide indeed raised all boats. But without Obama on the ballot, that dynamic is far less evident.

Obama’s average job approval of 52 percent is improved from the dog days of 2010 when his approval was stuck in the mid-40s. But Obama began his first term on a much higher note, watching his approval rating fall after pushing for issues that proved to be unpopular. There’s a good chance that gun control and climate-change regulations will be just as polarizing as Obamacare and cap-and-trade, and his approval ratings will decline accordingly. 

What would make such setbacks particularly frustrating for this White House is that they see national public opinion turning in their direction, particularly on the hot-button cultural issues that long were a hindrance for the party. As Obama’s inaugural indicated, they view the march of history stampeding in their direction. On gun control, the Pew Research Center found an outright 51 percent majority now think it’s more important to control gun ownership than protect the rights of gun owners — for the first time since Obama became president. That’s fueled by strong support for gun-control measures by 18-29 year olds (59 percent), African-Americans (66 percent), and Hispanics (72 percent). But in the more-homogeneous, conservative states where Democrats’ votes are necessary to pass a bill, opposition still is strong.

The story is the same for climate change, the issue that Obama unexpectedly championed in his inaugural address. Nearly two-thirds of voters considered global warming a serious problem in last October’s Pew survey, but seniors remain relatively pessimistic, with just 52 percent agreeing. Talk to the dozens of House Democrats who lost reelection in 2010, even those in favorable districts, and they will pinpoint the cap-and-trade vote as responsible for their prospects as anything else. Voters tend to support environmental measures in the abstract, but when the costs (raising gas prices, threatening job growth with regulations) are introduced into the equation, those numbers decline markedly. That applies doubly when the economy is still struggling to emerge from the recession, in an economy that Obama now owns.

Obama has chosen to go big in his second term without any more elections to worry about, betting on a liberal counteroffensive to push back the conservative gains of the Reagan era. His political advisers believe they’re on track with the future of America with their strategy. But the president is relying on the most fickle voters to help deliver his grand vision. Soon enough, we’ll find out whether they were more drawn to Obama the person, or Obama’s grand ideas. 

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