By Mark Rhoads
In an effort to cheer themselves up, Liberal Democratic pundits are desperately telling each other a variety of dubious theories about how President Obama could reverse his negative job approval poll numbers in the next 12 months. The president has been averaging about 44 percent in approval in a dozen recent polls and about 52 percent in disapproval. But the worse news for Democrats is that the disapproval group seems to be hardening in their opinions while the approval group is softer. So that donors will not fold up their wallets, here are some of the dishes being served:
Comfort Dish Number One is the Vision Theory. Some Democratic pundits are peddling the idea that once the name of the GOP nominee is known, Obama can make the 2012 election about a choice between competing visions for the future instead of a referendum on the incumbent administration.
If this idea sounds very familiar, it should. Democrats were trying hard to sell the same yarn just one year ago only weeks before they suffered their worst loss in 62 years with the defeat of 63 Democrats in the U.S. House, a loss of six U.S. Senate Seats on top of the Ted Kennedy vacant seat early in 2010, 10 governors on top of the loss of New Jersey and Virginia in 2009, and 675 state legislative seats (more than in 1994). Yet the White House spin was that none of these losses could be blamed on over-reach by President Obama and all were due to bad candidates.
Almost every congressional or presidential election with an incumbent dominating the news is a referendum on the party in power. The exceptions are very rare and 2010 was not an exception. So the idea that whoever the GOP nominee is will become the main issue of the campaign is a very hard sell based on history. Obama and his record were the issue in all elections since January 2009 and he will continued to be the dominant issue.
Base election or swing voter election?
A second Democrat comfort dish is that Obama can make this a base election instead of a swing voter election. That means that if Obama can only “energize the base voters,” that might be enough to tip the scales in his favor. Ever since Newt Gingrich coined the term energize the base in 1994, analysts have tried to predict if the independents and swing voters will be a big factor or if the party faithful turnout will be the biggest factor. In 1974, Democrats had all the energy on their side and they turned out to vote while Republicans stayed home in the wake of Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. Twenty years later in 1994, the reverse happened and all the energy was on the GOP base side as Republicans turned out and Democrats stayed home because they were disenchanted with Bill Clinton after only two years and Hillary’s healthcare scheme over-reach.
In 2010, Democratic over-reach on healthcare again helped the Democrats to their worst loss in 62 years. Since that election, the Obama signature “legislative victory” has led HHS to grant more than 1,000 exemptions to the Health Reform Act even before it takes full effect and only two days ago. HHS announced exactly what GOP critics predicted: That the administration cannot pay for the expensive long-term insurance that was supposed to start in 2012.
So Obamacare is starting to implode from its own inherent contradictions before the issue of the individual mandate even gets to the Supreme Court. This is the self-destruction of the Obama plan without much help from Republicans.
Obama will certainly try to energize his 2008 base but here are the problems. An August Gallup poll shows that Obama has slipped 12 points with black voters since his 2008 win. The reason in part is that black unemployment is twice that of whites at 16.7 percent to 8 percent for whites. Obama cannot afford to lose 12 points among black voters in key states with critical electoral votes and also lose independents and Hispanic voters.
This erosion of black support in part explains the desperate attempts to demonize the Tea Party as the new home of the Ku Klux Klan. Obama needs a villain to campaign against and the Tea Party will be one of his primary targets. Will this race-card tactic be enough to bring back 12 percent of black voters to Obama’s name on the ballot? Odds are that it will not be enough but it is the only card that Obama has left to play.
Will Generation Y save Obama?
Another Democratic comfort dish is that Generation Y or “The Millenials” will save them. That is the group that happened to dominate college campuses in 2008 when Obama became a cult personality. It is true that Obama won the support of more youth voters than any previous candidate and that they voted in a much higher percentage than normal. But turnover on college campuses is very high.
The college population of just three years ago has already moved on and now they are struggling to find jobs when they thought their college degrees would guarantee getting hired. That 2008 Obama support group might not repeat their infatuation of 2008 and there is little evidence yet that they can be replaced with a new college generation devoted in such numbers to Obama. If there is any fall off at all from the 2008 Obama youth vote, the only place to look for replacement voters might be among illegal aliens who find their way to the polls and are not successfully challenged.
So while ballot security is always important for Republican candidates in any year, 2012 will be an extra big challenge. But again, the question is: Will illegal immigrants be enough to swing an election and will they be motivated enough to coordinate the vote fraud attempt? I answer Yes to the latter but maybe No to the former depending on the dynamics of a particular state.
Can Obama regain near-cult status?
The fourth Democratic comfort food dish is that they can recreate the magic of 2008. For reasons already discussed, 2008 was a unique year in many ways. Obama is no longer a blank page but an incumbent with a record to defend. As each month passes, his attempt to blame all his current troubles on George W. Bush is wearing thin with the public. Bush was not responsible for blowing $800 billion on a stimulus plan that flopped, Obama was.
The kind of miracle it would now take for Obama to come back into positive approval territory and become competitive again is one that would involve a dramatic drop in the unemployment rate and a dramatic increase in household income by October 2012. The odds against that happening are very high even though we might see some rebound in the Dow over the next six months and some return of investor confidence could come as more people expect that Obama will not get another term.
A lot can happen but will it?
Obama might be tempted to wag the dog and look for a foreign policy adventure to unite the nation behind him as it did in the immediate aftermath of killing Osama bin Laden. As dangerous as that strategy might seem, he could well be tempted to try it. But thankfully his options might be limited by a lack of international support for needless military interventions, with his Democratic base also serving as a brake – as well as the GOP brake.
The last comfort dish is the old standby, namely that a lot can happen in the next year to change Obama’s fortunes. Yes, a lot can happen but is it likely to happen? The answer is “not very.”
Also to be published in Illinois Review