Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Democrats' Obama problem (Hint: It's not the one you think)

On Monday, I wrote about Democrats' middle-class problem. Consider this post a follow-up to that one (which, if you haven't read it, is  here ).

Democrats' strange new awareness of their failure to address the concerns of middle-income workers strikes me as one of two things. It could simply be your run-of-the-mill political pandering. Or it could be an actual epiphany. If it's the latter, then the next thing Democratic leaders need to understand is that their problems aren't going to end just because Barack Obama is leaving the White House.

True, Obama is as polarizing a figure as we've seen in U.S. politics in some time. And for six years, many folks on the left have convinced themselves that conservatives, Republicans and many independents are irrationally opposed to Obama's policies, and that racism must be the largest reason. It couldn't be ideology -- after all, to use one of their examples, the idea for the individual mandate came from the Heritage Foundation and was implemented in Massachusetts by Gov. Mitt Romney! (If you still believe it's as simple as that, you need to read Avik Roy's account of the history of the mandate , its supporters and its objectors.) Even if I have overstated the degree to which our friends on the left ascribe Obama-opposition to race, there seems to be a prevailing belief that the disdain for Obama's policies reflects animus toward Obama personally -- and that it will largely melt away as soon as he leaves office.

I think the opposite is closer to the truth.

That is, I think support for Obama, and hence his policies such as Obamacare, may be personal in nature, and that he personally is all that's keeping his coalition stitched together. He is, to borrow from Reggie Jackson, the straw that stirs the Democrats' drink.

I don't necessarily attribute this to people supporting Obama because he is black. That may be true at the margins among people who, in presidential elections prior to 2008, were eligible to vote but didn't do so. But by and large, black voters supported Democrats for decades before Obama came on the scene. History suggests that, absent some strong appeal to them from a Republican candidate, the vast majority of black voters would have sided with the Democratic candidate in 2008 no matter who it was. So I think the attachment to Obama among his voters is personal, but not necessarily based on race.

OK, you may be saying at this point, but why would that point to a personal affinity for Obama keeping public opinion of his policies from taking a total nose dive? Because that's true of most presidents.

Voters are loath to disown a president they have backed, particularly if they backed him more than once. Consider that, even as banks were failing and equity markets were plunging in October 2008, fully one-quarter of those surveyed by Gallup continued to approve of George W. Bush's job performance. If that doesn't sound too high, know that it was nonetheless higher than Congress' approval rating at the time (18 percent), which had been below 25 percent for a year at that point -- and that Congress was at that time controlled by Democrats, the party that surged in the next month's election.

It wasn't until Bush was off the ballot that the bottom truly fell out from under the GOP.

Democrats who believe they're primed for an odds-on win in 2016 just because the electorate will be larger, or stands to be younger and less white, are misreading the message of the past two midterm elections. While the president's party tends to lose seats in midterm elections, and voter turnout is always lower in those years, the drop-off isn't always as stark as it has been under Obama -- twice. Obama has the worst and eighth-worst showings among presidents in the 16 midterm elections since 1952*. Combined, his net loss of 86 seats in midterm elections is worse than any president during that time; the next worst was Eisenhower with a net loss of 66.

In short, counting on the Obama coalition to show up didn't work in 2010 or 2014 when his name wasn't on the ballot but, as he memorably (and perhaps unwisely) put it this year, his policies were. The notion that his coalition will show up in 2016 for someone other than him is not unfathomable, but nor is it anywhere close to certain.

All of which points, again, to Democrats' need to move in a different direction over the next two years. As I said in the previous piece, I may well disagree with the direction they take. But they would be foolish to stay the course.


* - The graph at the link doesn't include information for 1954 or 1966, which I drew from other sources.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.