Following November’s midterms, Democrats are stuck between Barack and a hard place. On the one hand, Obama costs them dearly with the general electorate. On the other, Democrats are unable to motivate their base without Obama on the ballot. For Democrats, this is a no-win situation — and exactly what they have encountered in the last two midterm elections.
Democrats have inherited a considerable “Obama debt.”
In Congress, before Obama took office, Democrats held 51 Senate seats and 232 House seats; now, just 46 and 186, respectively.
The same is true with key voters. In Obama’s 2008 win, Democrats took 51 percent of Independent and 50 percent of suburban voters; in 2014, exit polls showed them with 42 percent and 43 percent, respectively.
Even worse is the “strong opinion” gulf. According to Rasmussen polling, on Election Day 2008, Obama had a 40 percent strong approval rating and 32 percent strong disapproval rating. On Election Day 2014, Obama’s strong approval rating was just 21 percent, while his strong disapproval rating was 40 percent.
From the America political spectrum’s center to its right, Obama costs Democrats; on the political spectrum’s left, Democrats cannot motivate Obama’s supporters enough to compensate. Two consecutive midterm elections prove Obama has put Democrats into this deep political hole, from which they cannot emerge as long as he remains in the public’s consciousness.
The Democrats’ problem is that Obama will remain in the public’s mind for some time, but will never again return to the ballot. Democrats are therefore stuck with an “Obama debt” they cannot pay.
The fallacy in Democrats’ 2016 predictions, that Hillary Clinton will undoubtedly retain the White House for them, is the presumption that the “Obama debt” will simply vanish after he leaves office. But politics does not work that way. Voters do not simply forgive, forget, and return to their previous pattern.
Obama’s own career offers the best proof of this. Obama owes his presidency to the fact that voters’ remembered his predecessor’s tenure. Obama won at least as much due to Bush’s unpopularity, as his own popularity. Even with Bush off the ballot, he remained on voters’ minds.
There is every reason to believe that situation will replay itself in two years.
A Republican Congress will hardly save Obama from himself over the next two years — as the Democratic Senate has over the last four. Recently, even Senate Democrats have been unable to do so.
From domestic policy to foreign policy, just about everything that could go wrong for the administration has gone wrong. And an administration’s last two years in office — as its power rapidly wanes — is the least likely time for improvement, especially when confronting an opposition Congress.
Nor do circumstances just improve by themselves — and luck is not a strategy for improvement.
Some point to the last two quarters’ good economic performance as proof of economic recovery that this will change Obama’s negative public perception. Even if the former were to happen, the latter does not necessarily follow.
Even with economic recovery, it is not guaranteed that public perception of Obama would change. First, a good six months does not override a bad six years. Second, the economy is only one element of many the public feels has gone awry under this administration.
As proof that an improved economy would not necessarily help Obama and Democrats in 2016, look at the 2000 race. Bill Clinton’s economy was fine through most of his last two years — far better than Obama’s — yet Al Gore failed to hold the White House for the Democrats.
If the public’s mind cannot be changed about Obama in two years, can it be taken off him? If it could, Hillary Clinton is an unlikely person to accomplish it.
For Obama’s base, she embodies what they oppose in their prevailing economic populism. How will she—with huge earnings and close ties to Wall Street — rally these voters, when Democrats as a whole have been unable to in Obama’s two midterm defeats?
For the general electorate, she is part and parcel of the Obama administration. She was not only at its center, but at the center of arguably its weakest link — foreign policy. How, of all people, will she use that experience to reverse their opposition to Obama?
Democrats have an inherited “Obama debt” they can neither renounce nor pay-off. They have less than two years to figure a way out of their trap. And as the time flies, the administration’s power wanes and a Republican Congress’s opposition grows.
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