Political Hay

Does Obama Have a Liberal Problem?

Why 2014 will turn out a lot worse for his party than 2010.

By 6.28.13

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Instead of conservatives, the ongoing scandals’ greatest impact could be on liberals. If proven true, the political fallout will be far greater than currently anticipated. Liberals are the most important constituency in the Obama coalition, and without them, the 2014 elections could be worse than 2010’s for Democrats.

Although no scandal is good for an administration, some are worse. The DOJ’s “investigation” of reporters and NSA’s secret surveillance program are just such “worse” scandals for this White House.

While much still remains to be known, the two parallel each other in clandestine surveillance under the justification of national security. Both also ominously resonate with liberals -- and that is what makes them worse than the Benghazi, HHS, and IRS scandals for Obama and Democrats.

The other scandals assuredly have political ramifications by further antagonizing conservatives. However, conservatives were already dedicated Obama opponents. First the DOJ scandal, and then the NSA scandal, threaten for the first time to alienate liberals -- Obama’s most dedicated supporters.

DOJ’s targeting of the press and NSA’s massive domestic surveillance program remind liberals of their political bête noire: Nixon. Forty years ago, liberals got their ultimate validation, and then vindication, of their worst political fears and prejudices. 

For them, Watergate proved Nixon’s administration was intrusive and abusive -- replete with enemies lists and skullduggery. Cornered, it retreated into unconstitutional cover-up, before being forced into unprecedented resignation. 

The press and then the courts saved liberals and doomed Nixon. Their ignominious 1972 defeat was wiped away in 1974’s landslide. Voters seemingly had forgotten and forgiven all and rescued them and their principles from what two years earlier had looked like national electoral irrelevancy. 

Now the DOJ and NSA scandals seem to draw elements from liberals’ own self-remembered heroic past and apply them to what they had seen as their currently hero president. 

Liberals love the press and the press has unabashedly returned the favor -- yet here was a liberal administration targeting reporters. Surveillance and secret court orders were conservatives’ hallmarks -- yet here was a liberal administration pursuing it on an unimaginable scale. Increasingly inescapable is the conclusion that their administration was employing their enemies’ means.

Any liberal thinking along those lines and any liberal rethinking of support for Obama should be giving the White House second thoughts. 

No group has been more electorally faithful or more politically important to Obama than liberals. In 2008, liberal made up 22 percent of the electorate and voted 88 percent for Obama. That translates into being roughly 37 percent of Obama’s supporters.

In 2012, liberals were 25 percent of the electorate and voted 86 percent for Obama. While Obama saw his popular vote percentage margin of victory cut almost in half from 2008, liberals increased their portion of his support to roughly 42 percent. Of all the groups in the Obama coalition -- women, Hispanics, blacks, Democrats, 18-29 year olds, city residents, union members -- none matched liberals’ three percentage point increase in the electorate. 

When the 2010 debacle hit, liberals alone among his core constituencies increased their level of support for Democrats -- again, by three percentage points.

The White House and Democrats must be asking themselves: If 2010 was so bad with increased liberal support, what would 2014 be with less? 

Nor is the electoral factor the only relevant one. There is also the legacy question. Bad as things are now for the White House with scandals, weak economy, high unemployment, and high budget deficit, what would life be like with all these negatives plus a Republican-controlled Congress? 

Nixon faced an opposition-controlled Congress in its pursuit of Watergate and it in no small way helped make Watergate what it ultimately became. At the least, what agenda Obama has left would be completely supplanted -- as Clinton’s was after 1994. 

Liberals have stuck by Obama through trials that have increasingly peeled away other voters. For the first time, there is an issue with the potential to cause liberals to waiver.

Going into 2014, Obama wants moderates and to gain the House, but what he needs are liberals and to retain the Senate. Scandals for the first time show a real path by which he could lose them all. 

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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.