10.28.10

Obama Needs An Enemy

The country may be down on the president. But compared to what? Wait till people get a better look at John Boehner and his band of corporate fat cats. Peter Beinart on the good news for Democrats.

The country may be down on the president. But compared to what? Wait till people get a better look at John Boehner and his band of corporate fat cats. Peter Beinart on the good news for Democrats. Plus, midterm predictions from the Election Oracle.

Amid the misery of the moment, here’s something Democrats can look forward to: President Obama is about to get his foil. He’s needed one throughout his career. In 2007, it was the contrast with Hillary Clinton that accentuated Obama’s freshness and authenticity. In 2008, it was during the presidential debates—where McCain looked erratic and uninformed and Obama looked analytical and centered—that Obama put the race away. In 2009 and 2010, by contrast, Obama has had no one to contrast himself with except for George W. Bush, and that stopped working long ago.

He’s remained, for all his troubles, far more popular than Congress. But with Congress in Democratic hands, he hasn’t been able to wield that contrast to his benefit. Instead of a political foil, Congress has provided political baggage. In passing legislation, Nancy Pelosi has proved masterful. But politically, she owns a favorability rating of 15 percent, according to this week’s New York Times, which helps explain why Republican candidates rarely utter the president’s name without mentioning hers as well.

Next week, however, things will change. A lot of Americans are about to be introduced to John Boehner and it’s unlikely they’ll like what they see. Partly, that’s because congressional leaders are usually unpopular. They’re sausage-makers, practitioners of an art that most Americans despise. And they’re rarely good on TV, which is not surprising given that they’ve been elevated within their parties because of their skills behind closed doors.

A lot of Americans are about to be introduced to John Boehner and it’s unlikely they’ll like what they see.

But Boehner is a particularly tough sell. Just as Pelosi, as a wealthy San Franciscan, confirmed popular stereotypes about Democrats as the party of the cultural elite, Boehner—with his coterie of golf-playing, cigar-chomping lobbyist buddies—confirms popular stereotypes about Republicans as the party of corporate fat cats. Republicans may hope that the public, having just voted overwhelmingly for their side, will be inclined to show its leaders some love. But that’s not what the polling suggests. Disapproval of Congress, according to the Times, is an amazing 76 percent, the highest figure ever recorded, which helps explain why Republicans are about to win big. But just as amazingly, the Republican Party’s approval rating is five points lower than that of the Democrats. What that means is that putting the GOP in control is unlikely to improve Americans’ opinion of the legislative branch.

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Angered by the lousy economy, and eager to lash out at the people running Washington, many independent voters who backed Obama will pull the lever for the GOP. But there’s not much ideological content to their partisan shift. According to the Times poll, Americans have no more confidence that Republicans can create jobs than Democrats can. Although not wild about Obama’s health-care plan, they don’t want Congress to repeal it. And while Americans give the GOP a huge edge on cutting the budget deficit, they vehemently oppose cutting entitlements like Social Security, which is the only big conservative idea about how to actually get the deficit down.

In this economy, Obama’s never going to be wildly popular. But he doesn’t have to be; he just has to be more popular than the other guy. Starting next week, for the first time in two years, he’ll have that other guy. The first time Obama meets Speaker Boehner, expect him to smile.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.