After delivering his second inaugural address, President Obama climbed the stairs to the Capitol, nodding at the wizened faces of the assembled congressional leaders, Supreme Court justices, and past presidents. Then he paused and took a long look at the roughly 1 million people gathered on the freezing lawn in front of him. This crowd was different than the one on the platform. It was younger, and much more diverse. The distance between the people Obama has to deal with in Congress and the ones who have supported him out in the country was never more obvious. But it’s a distance that Obama, as president, rarely seeks to traverse.
More than any of his recent predecessors, Obama has been ineffective in rallying support for his policies. Purely political rhetoric doesn’t suit him; he hasn’t figured out how to cut through the din with pugnacious phrases, like George W. Bush did, or to leaven his attacks with plucky humor, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did. Worse than that, he often seems reluctant even to try. In recent weeks, a series of foreign policy crises have kept him pinned down, and his late-August vacation limits his political activity. But come Labor Day, he should realize that he actually has a pretty good story to tell, and hit the hustings.
The fall congressional campaign is well underway, and there are two prevailing scenarios — a full-fledged disaster for the Democrats, losing both houses of Congress; and a less sweeping loss, mitigated by enough strategic victories to keep the Senate barely in Democratic control. One would think that Obama’s party is on the ropes, failing, dragged down by the poor condition of the country. But that’s not remotely the case.
Since January 2013, the economy has improved significantly. All the dire predictions made by Republicans in 2012 have been refuted. A jobless recovery? The unemployment rate has dropped from 7.9 percent in January 2013 to 6.2 percent today. A health care disaster? The number of uninsured adults has plunged by 25 percent, thanks to Obamacare. Spiraling health-care costs? The years that Obama has been in office have seen the lowest rates of increase in a generation. Out-of-control deficits? A 2014 deficit of $514 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office — almost half what it was during the 2012 campaign. As a percentage of GDP, the deficit is about the average of where it’s been the last 40 years.
Of course, the Middle East is a mess, emboldening Republicans who believe a more militaristic posture would somehow have deterred ISIS and Hamas. Yet Americans are vastly more supportive of Obama’s reluctance to intervene in such disputes than the frenzied calls to action by John McCain and other GOP hawks.
Nonetheless, Obama’s Democrats are stuck in a trap of their own making: The president’s opponents, including conservative super PACs, are nationalizing the race with sweeping claims about Obamacare and the economy. But there’s no similarly broad-based response coming from the Democrats. Their candidates in swing districts are distancing themselves even from Obama’s successes, and national Democrats are approaching the election as a series of local contests rather than a fight for congressional control. Thus, many people who aren’t habitual voters — such as the younger Americans, low-income people, and minorities who came out for Obama in 2008 and 2012 — feel far less of a push to go to the polls this year. Meanwhile, many moderates are liable to be influenced by frustration over Washington gridlock and seek a change, with the GOP as the only change out there.
This pattern is entirely predictable, and there’s only one way to disrupt it: A colorful, forceful defense of his policies by Obama and the national Democratic Party. Start with the proposition that the approval ratings for Obamacare are artificially low, because of the initial problems with the HealthCare.gov website. Most national polls are pretty consistent: About 40 percent support Obamacare, while about 55 percent oppose it. It sounds bad, but Democrats should keep in mind that many of those who tell pollsters they oppose the Affordable Care Act aren’t Republicans; they’re liberals who prefer a single-payer plan. There’s every reason to believe that a full-throated defense of Obamacare — and a focus on Republicans’ inability to coalesce around an alternative — can move the numbers in Democrats’ favor, just as it did in 2012.
Instead of spending their super PAC money to take down individual Republican candidates, the national Democrats should be aggressively countering the view that Obama’s policies have left him, and the nation, at a difficult crossroads. The nation’s vital signs are better today than in 2012, and the political climate for the party in power should be, too. If he wants to continue and expand policies that are working, Obama — the most diffident of political crusaders — must first persuade voters to give him some credit.