A Further Perspective

Libya: Liberals’ Last Straw?

Obama had enough problems without bringing this one on himself.

By 6.28.11

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Is Libya going to be the straw that breaks the donkey's back? Certainly, the economy has already inflicted serious damage to Obama's 2012 prospects. However, this has largely been factored in by the general electorate. Contrastingly, Libya is an unforeseen and unfactored variable that could make it a reelection coup de grâce.

According to a March 21 Gallup poll, the Administration's Libyan engagement began with the lowest support level (47%) for any U.S. military action in almost 30 years. A June 23 Gallup poll showed approval has fallen to just 39%, with 46% disapproving. In Congress too, support is eroding -- moving increasingly from the fringes to the center. And that was the Attorney General and the Pentagon's top counsel both contradicted the Administration's position that the conflict was "distinct from the kind of 'hostilities' contemplated by the War Powers Act." 

This ominous overseas development is playing out in front of an economic backdrop that has eliminated Obama's electoral margin for error. While Obama does not own the downturn, he increasingly owns the upturn's absence. Talk of a "double-dip" only exacerbates the anxiety.

Obama's 2012 threat can be glimpsed in 2010's outcome. Obama's casual moderate supporters eroded; his core conservative opponents were energized; and his base liberal supporters were enervated. The result was a Democratic debacle -- running from local to state to loss of the House and a sliced Senate majority. 

If Obama is to rebuild his political fortunes in less than two years' time, it must start with his base. Obama won in 2008 with the largest share of the popular vote (52.5%) of any Democratic presidential candidate since LBJ in 1964. This time, success is much more likely to look like Clinton's (43% in 1992 and 49.2% in 1996), than Johnson's. 

Of Obama's three most loyal 2008 groups, only African Americans (95%) and Democrats (89%) gave him a higher percentage of their votes than liberals (88%). And only Democrats formed a larger percentage of the electorate -- 40% to liberals' 22%. Multiplying liberals' participation rate by their Obama support rate meant they accounted for 19.4% of Obama's popular vote percentage -- well over a third of his total. 

Libya's particular threat to Obama's large liberal bloc is acute. The positive side of liberals' ledger is slim. While Obama's health care plan is viewed unfavorably by most, it is viewed most favorably by liberals. Yet even here, they were disappointed that it didn't go far enough and could see even this overturned by the Supreme Court before the election.

The negative side of liberals' ledger -- which especially motivated them in 2008 -- had Iraq and Afghanistan at its top three years ago. It still will in 2012. Libya not only resurrects their bitterness that U.S. forces are still there. The Administration's recent denial of the War Powers Act's applicability to the Libyan conflict can also be seen by liberals as reinforcing a president's ability to take America into military conflict. Hardly what liberals were overwhelmingly voting for in 2008.

Libya is also indisputably Obama's. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan, health care, and the economy, even liberals can not blame Bush or Republicans for it. This was Obama's decision alone. A decision Americans still neither understand nor support.

Admittedly, Libya is hardly the economy. Yet for a particular -- and a particularly important -- group to Obama, it could be bigger. Liberals agree with Obama on his approach to the economy. Not so Libya. In conjunction with the economy's broader damage to his reelection prospects, Libya's particular damage could be fatal. 

Obama needs to extricate himself quickly from Libya. If for no other reason, than it is politically unsustainable long-term. Now, finding himself falling further and faster into conflict with Congress, what support the engagement had will only more rapidly diminish.

Congress's ire also threatens Obama's ability to set his own terms for Libya's conclusion -- something he desperately needs to do. Obama can ill-afford having a solution thrust upon him by Congress. If extrication comes by Congress' action, Capitol Hill in general and Republicans in particular are likely to get credit from a grateful public. Such a course will also damage his party as it plays out -- forcing them to either distance themselves from Obama, their own supporters, or both. 

Libya could well be the straw that breaks the donkey's back, by being at the same time the last straw for liberals. It would be the height of irony if, instead of toppling Gaddafi, this military action topples Obama.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.