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For Democrats, Things Look Daunting: A Midterm Status Update

Recent polls have President Obama's approval ratings hovering around 40 percent -- a new low. What does it mean for Democrats in November's midterm elections? Here, President Barack Obama is pictured at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel, Saturday, May 3, 2014, in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Recent polls have President Obama's approval ratings hovering around 40 percent -- a new low. What does it mean for Democrats in November's midterm elections? Here, President Barack Obama is pictured at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel, Saturday, May 3, 2014, in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
This article is more than 6 years old.

While President Obama laughed it up with some of his inside-the-Beltway admirers over the weekend at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, it was apparent that a significant segment of the outside-the-Beltway electorate -- the group that matters most in November — has grown weary of his Administration.

A diverse series of recent polls reveal Obama at the nadir of his political popularity, as well as a rare lead for the GOP in a generic congressional ballot. This doesn’t have too many Democrats in Congress laughing.

Although it’s early to read too much into what polls may portend for the midterms, last week’s outcomes mirror those from similar pre-midterm polls where the incumbent president’s party was swamped in 1994 and 2006 — and in 2010, when Democrats lost the House.

That malaise will be difficult for congressional Democrats to shake over the next six months, particularly with certain issues looming that will frame the midterms.

It gets worse from there. Another poll released last week identified an enthusiasm gap emerging between traditional Democratic and Republican midterm voters. This divergence may result from the combination of a now-uninspiring party leader in the White House as well as a general malaise that envelops the incumbent party in the middle of a second term, before the next presidential campaign kicks into gear. That malaise will be difficult for congressional Democrats to shake over the next six months, particularly with certain issues looming that will frame the midterms.

For instance, last week coincidentally brought a roller coaster of mixed, and confusing, economic news. The economy “grew” 0.1 percent in the first quarter, but some economists remained cautiously optimistic, blaming the harsh winter on slowing down home building and investment. The American electorate was also treated to headlines that China is now on course to knock the U.S. off its perch as the world’s premier economic power — a position it’s held since 1872.

On the bright side for congressional Democrats, though, the potential remains to leverage an improving jobs picture come November. Last week brought news that the unemployment rate plummeted to 6.3 percent in the first quarter, harkening back to the days before Lehman Brothers imploded. Yet, the denominator for the employment-rate calculation remains shaky. The U.S. labor participation rate is the lowest it’s been since 1978, and the reasons underlying this trend remain unclear.

Thus, it’s not surprising that job creation remains the most important issue to the electorate: only about a quarter of those surveyed expect the economy to improve next year, and only about 40 percent of those surveyed trust Obama to manage the economy. There’s a lot of work for Democrats to do to dig themselves out of this economic-perception hole prior to the fall.

The president also toured Asia last week, in part to shore up nervous allies that are in the unfortunate geographical position of ringing China — which also happened to declare recently that it ”can never be contained.” As Russia moved with impunity to annex Crimea and massed its army on the Ukrainian border during the president’s trip, Obama came under attack at home from usually supportive media sources like Maureen Dowd, and soft critics like David Brooks went so far as to question the future of the international liberal pluralistic system.

Since the beginning of the year, foreign policy has emerged as an issue that will play in the midterms — and beyond in 2016. As last week’s polling revealed, the electorate suffers a bit from cognitive dissonance on the issue. It doesn’t approve of the president’s inactivity in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine, but it also wants to pull back from international commitments. Though voters don’t approve of America being perceived as weak on the international stage, they are still suffering a hangover from President George W. Bush’s multiple, costly commitments. It thus remains unclear how this issue will break in 2014 and 2016.

And finally last week, also while the president was out of town, the drum beat of investigation and, perhaps, scandal grew a little louder. It may ultimately drown out a lot of debate on other issues leading up to the midterms, potentially as much to the detriment of the GOP as to Democrats in Congress. As the machinery of select committees begins to turn, one can bet this sorry process will continue for the next two years.

The Obama Administration, like most others, has played the scandal game badly. The investigation surrounding the Benghazi murders hasn’t faded away, as the White House had hoped it would. Instead, it picked up steam last week with the release of emails after 18 months of trying by a private watchdog group through the Freedom of Information Act. On first blush, they seem to show, for the first time, that the White House has not been completely forthcoming in its portrayal of how Sept. 11, 2012 actually played out.

Congressional investigations and the second term scandal-watch sap energy and are a distraction for an Administration clumsily trying to keep many balls in the air.

The IRS scandal also has not gone away — and that pesky Freedom of Information Act has produced more surprising email traffic among IRS employees that will doubtless keep this issue alive as well.  Democrats and the Obama Administration have thus far tried to laugh off these investigations in public, but the ‘hey, dude’ approach, personified embarrassingly by Tommy Vietor, masks a behind-the-scenes exasperation and concern.

Congressional investigations and the second term scandal-watch sap energy and are a distraction for an Administration clumsily trying to keep many balls in the air. They also take away from an Administration’s credibility over time, as Iran-Contra illustrated. In this instance, both the Benghazi and IRS investigations will further energize GOP base voters to turn out for the midterms. The Benghazi investigation also has the potential to impact the 2016 presidential race in a big way.

What a week of foreshadowing it was for the midterm elections. And for incumbent Democrats in contested congressional races, it was no laughing matter.


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John Sivolella Cognoscenti contributor
John Sivolella is on the faculty at Columbia University, where he teaches about the presidency, federal agencies and public policy.

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