Politics

05.12.14

Obama Can Speak to His Base, but Other Americans Want More

The president keeps playing to his base, but most Americans want to hear about growth—and he’s going to pay the price for it.

Last week, Barack Obama told a Hollywood fundraiser that Washington’s politics had grown dysfunctional, and that the Republicans were to blame. As he put it, “We have a Washington that’s not working.” Conveniently, Obama ignored his own role in the national standoff.  Memo to Obama, presidents aren’t supposed to be spectators.

But a more glaring omission was the President’s refusal to acknowledge that America’s ongoing scrum reflects the social fissures and factures that now shape the national landscape. Washington mirrors America. Red and blue, like black and white, are not just colors. The current political stalemate is about real things, contentious issues, conflicting viewpoints, and people. Lives and money are on the line, whether the debate is over jobs, health care, or Social Security.

Given Obama’s overt reliance on the shifts in America’s demographics to capture and keep the White House, the President can’t credibly blame his predicament on “dysfunction” as if he were just another innocent bystander. Having come to be seen as rewarding the Coalition of the Ascendant—minorities, and those on the lower rungs of the income ladder—at the expense of the “haves,” and not just the “1 percent,” Obama cannot extricate himself from the larger equation, much as he may wish he could. For all of his talk of there being no “black America and white and Latino America and Asian America,” and there being only “the United States of America,” the President’s policies are viewed as benefiting America’s bluest precincts most of all—whether located on Wall Street or 125th Street.

To paraphrase the prophet Hosea, sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind. As Obama and the Democrats learned in 2010 when the Democrats lost control of the House, the Democrats’ Upstairs-Downstairs coalition does not make for a failure-free strategy, much as the Republicans’ inability to resonate beyond 50 shades of white has kept them from winning the presidency in recent elections.

Oh, and successful presidents do more than win elections; they actually govern—successfully. As president and the lead player in an era of simultaneous U.S. change, retrenchment, and drift, Obama cannot disclaim his own personal responsibility and expect to be believed. Indeed, the polls say he is not.

The latest Gallup Poll crystalizes Obama’s problem—namely, he is more a divider than a uniter. Like George W. Bush and the Republican Party heading into the 2006 midterm elections, Obama and the Democrats are facing an electorate that wants to punish the president and his party.  By a three-to-two margin, voters want to vote against Obama instead of supporting him.

And while midterm electorates are whiter, older, wealthier, and more churchgoing than those in presidential years, whining about the unfairness of it all is a political loser, and misses the mark. Those folks are Americans, although not always Democrats.

Obama is most comfortable when he tells the Democratic faithful what they want to hear, as opposed to letting the country know what it needs to know, namely how to get out of the grasp of a sclerotic economy. Instinctively, Obama talks about rising inequality, global warming, and attacks on college campuses. These issues, however, are not paramount to most. These days a majority of Americans are worrying first and foremost about growth and jobs.

Just recently, a study released by the Global Strategies Group, a Democratic consulting firm, reported that growth is the pressing issue of our times. Fully 78 percent of respondents called it extremely or very important to “promote an agenda of economic growth that will benefit all Americans.” To put things into perspective, growth handily beat out income inequality (50 percent) and redistribution (43 percent) as national priorities. 

Yet, by harping on issues that excite Hollywood and the Democratic elites, Obama subjects himself and the Democrats to the loss of the Senate. Although Frenchman Thomas Piketty is all the rage among the chattering class, he doesn’t get to vote in U.S. elections, and France’s growth is even more tepid than ours. For the record, French unemployment under its Socialist-led government is north of 10 percent, but it does have higher taxes to the delight of the true-believing left.

For the moment, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza gives the Republicans a four-out-of-five shot of snaring the Senate. For example, in Louisiana, incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu is in a dead heat against her Republican challenger, Congressman Bill Cassidy. Meanwhile, Landrieu’s personal approval rating is dismal, with nearly three-fifths of Pelican State voters calling her performance not good or poor. The story is pretty much the same in North Carolina, where incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan is locked in a stride-for-stride footrace with a Republican challenger, Thom Tillis.

If Obama could get beyond the conventions of playing to his base, and instead talk about jobs and growth, and growth and jobs, the Democrats may yet hold on to the Senate. If the Democrats could find it in their hearts to make a play for the vote of working Americans—like FDR did back during the Depression—the upcoming midterm elections might have a different feel. The President’s push to hike the minimum wage is commendable, but it is stillborn, and to harp on it while dawdling over Keystone XL is like fiddling while Rome burns. 

Right now, however, Democratic base politics shapes Obama’s message, with the President having headlined Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network Conference in April, and now raising money in Tinseltown. Over in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid has blocked a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline, as he does the bidding of Democratic mega-donor and Keystone XL opponent Tom Steyer. Ironically, Steyer’s own company, Farallon, had once upon a time invested in coal plants, nuclear plants, and in oil and gas. To top it off, Steyer has held an interest in a Keystone competitor. But there’s nothing fishy about that, is there?

That Obama and the Democrats pledge fealty to their donors and their voters should surprise no one. Yet they cannot reasonably believe that the rest of America will march in lockstep with them. Washington’s gridlock is symptomatic of where America actually is, a country enmeshed in a bloodless, soft, semi-civil civil war, and Obama and his backers just can’t or won’t acknowledge that reality.