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Does He Feel Your Pain?

Forget Massachusetts. Obama's problem is nationwide.

Bill Clinton didn’t know he was in big trouble until the very eve of the November 1994 election. Barack Obama knows now, barely a year into his presidency. While the party loyalists can blame Martha Coakley’s defeat on her ignorance of Red Sox baseball, it was clearly a message to the president and his party. Yes, a less inept candidate might have beaten Scott Brown, but if Obama and his program had been more popular in Massachusetts, even Coakley could have won--and by ten points or more.

There were no network exits polls, only a limited sample by Rasmussen, but some of the polls taken beforehand bear out Obama’s role in Coakley’s defeat. In the final January 17 poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning North Carolina outfit that picked up Brown’s surge early in the month, 20 percent of the respondents who voted for Obama in 2008 said they’d vote for Brown. Among those voters, only 22 percent approved of Obama’s presidency, and only 13 percent backed his health care plan. (Click here to read Thomas B. Edsall: "Why Health Care is the Graveyard of Democratic Dreams.")

In fact, the percent of 2008 Obama voters who were backing Brown almost perfectly matched the percentage who were dissatisfied with Obama’s health care plan, which Brown himself singled out for criticism in his campaign. According to the Rasmussen exit sample, 52 percent of Brown voters rated health care as their top issue--a clear indication that they were viewing the election in national and not merely state terms.

The most important question raised by Coakley’s loss is not what she could have done better--the answer to that can fill pages of unhappy anecdotes about campaign mishaps--but why Obama’s popularity is so low that a Democrat could lose Massachusetts. A conservative Republican Senate candidate winning Massachusetts, which Obama carried by 62 percent to 36 percent in 2008, is comparable to a liberal Democrat carrying Utah.

If you believe some of the blogs, the Democrats lost Massachusetts, and Obama’s approval is plummeting nationwide, because he alienated his left-wing base. Perhaps that does account for an absence of turnout among young voters in the Virginia gubernatorial or Massachusetts Senate races, but the polls have not shown growing dissatisfaction among young, minority, or liberal voters--the three voting blocs that accounted for Obama’s strongest support in 2008. Where he has lost ground--and where the Democrats have lost ground--is primarily among white working and middle-class voters and senior citizens.

The Suffolk University poll in Massachusetts, which like the PPP poll, was pretty much on target in the final result, singled out two white working-class towns, Gardner and Fitchburg, as bellwethers. Obama won Gardner, where Democrats hold a three-to-one registrations edge, by 59 percent to 31 percent in 2008. Brown won it by 56 percent to 42 percent. Obama won Fitchburg, with a similar Democratic edge, by 60 percent to 38 percent in 2008. Brown won it by 59 percent to 40 percent. That suggests a fairly dramatic shift among white working class voters.

There is no similar city or county gauge for how seniors voted in the final result, but there were prior polls. The Suffolk poll taken January 14 has some clues. The age group that most strongly favored Brown was sixty-five to seventy-four-year-olds by 58 to 38 percent. The same group opposed national health insurance by 48 percent to 28 percent and thought the federal government couldn’t afford such a plan by 66 percent to 33 percent. This age group also included the highest percentage of voters--41 percent--who said they “strongly opposed” Obama’s plan. And they were the one group (albeit narrowly) who disapproved of the job Obama was doing as president--by 45 percent to 44 percent. (Click here to read Jonathan Cohn's open letter to nervous and frustrated House Democrats.)

If you look at national polls, Obama has suffered the greatest loss of approval among exactly the same groups. In the Pew polls, Obama suffered a drastic drop in support in the $30,000-$75,000 income group, from 63 percent to 17 percent approval in February 2009, to 53 percent to 35 percent disapproval in the January 14 poll. Among respondents over sixty-five years old, he went from 60 percent to 17 percent approval to 54 percent to 31 percent disapproval. In its January 2010 poll, Pew has a breakdown by race that is even more disturbing. Whites with some or no college--a rough designation for working-class whites--disapprove of Obama’s presidency by 54 percent to 36 percent. 

Why do these groups matter? Since the 1960s, when the Democratic Party split over race, and later over cultural issues as well, the white working class has been a key vote in elections. Their departure from the Democrats in the South helped account for the transformation of the Deep South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. And in the Northern states, and particularly in Midwestern states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, they have been the swing vote in state and presidential elections. It’s a fair measure to say that if a Democrat can get about 45 percent of the white working-class vote, he or she can carry Ohio--Obama got about 44 percent in 2008. But if he gets only 40 percent or less in these states, he will lose those states and lose national elections. The white working-class vote may not be as important in five or ten years, as the demography of America shifts, but it remains so now—an enduring legacy of the politics of the late '60s.

The senior citizen vote overlaps to some extent with the white working-class vote, but it has a special importance because these voters come out disproportionately in midterm elections. If the Democrats continue to lose the senior vote, as Coakley appears to have done in Massachusetts yesterday, they will get clobbered in November 2010. We’re not talking two or three senate seats, but as many as eight, and not 20 or 25 House seats, but maybe between 30 and 40. To avoid a calamity on that level, Democrats will have to answer a difficult question: Why have these two groups distanced themselves in the last year, and particularly in the last few months, from Obama and the party?

These two groups of voters have not viewed Obama’s presidency in a fundamentally different way from many other voters, but they, and particularly working-class whites, have been the prime source of a populist anger against the Obama administration. They have perceived Obama as robbing Peter to pay Paul--or more concretely, taking benefits from and imposing higher taxes on them in order to provide greater income and benefits to others. And we are talking here about perceptions. I don’t intend to get into an argument about what is actually in the various health plans, some of which do benefit senior citizens and the white working and middle class.

Working-class populism in America has always taken two forms: The first--let’s call it left-wing populism--has typically been directed at speculators who make money from people who work in factories and offices and who don’t seem to contribute to the actual wealth of society. The second form--let’s call it right-wing populism--has targeted immigrants, black sharecroppers, the unemployed, and other out groups who are seen as trying to deprive those who work of their rightful earnings. These two strains often appear together, as they did in the original American populist movement. And these sentiments are most concentrated among the embattled classes--those that see themselves threatened from above and below.

Obama has provoked both left-wing and right-wing populism. He provoked left-wing populism by using tax dollars to sustain the banks and auto companies and to reward their managers who had already shown themselves to be incompetent--and then by acquiescing when the bankers paid themselves additional bonuses. In a poll taken in early January by Allstate/National Journal, 1,200 respondents revealed whom they thought had “benefited most” from the government’s response to the financial crisis. Banks, investment companies, major corporations, and the wealthy were way out in front.

Obama’s health care plan has provoked a combination of right-wing and left-wing populism. The middle class and senior citizens see it as a program that taxes and takes benefits away from them in order to help those without insurance--the out groups--and to enrich the insurance companies themselves. They didn’t invent this perception out of thin air: It derived in part from the plan to tax “Cadillac” health care plans (which are sometimes held by unionized middle class workers), penalize workers who don’t buy insurance,  and cut future Medicare spending, while providing new subscribers and profits for the insurance companies. Undoubtedly, the prior perception of Obama’s financial policies reinforced these suspicions about his health care plan, which is now as unpopular as the bank bailout. In Obama’s speech in Massachusetts last Sunday for Coakley, he relegated his health care policies to two passing references to insurance companies.

Is this political failure Obama’s fault? I have made the argument that Obama’s declining approval can be attributed to the rising rate of unemployment and that the only way he could have prevented, or eased, the fall in his popularity would have been to get Congress to adopt a much larger stimulus program last winter. I still think there is truth to that argument--and also to the riposte that with the current congress of Republican nihilists and Democratic deficit hawks it would have been impossible to get a much larger stimulus. But I think that there is more to Obama’s problems that than original sin of the insufficiently large stimulus program.

I updated the graph that I did last fall to illustrate the close correlation between unemployment rate and presidential approval or disapproval. What I found in Obama’s case is that at the beginning of last fall, when Washington began debating his health care plan in earnest, his level of disapproval began to exceed the rise in the unemployment rate. (See chart below)

Of course, there is nothing particularly scientific about this finding, but it at least suggests that Obama’s political problems can’t be entirely laid at the foot of the Great Recession. Beyond that, one has to look at how the administration has conducted itself politically.

Obama’s political problem boils down to the difficulty he has speaking to and for middle America. This problem became evident during the middle of the primary battle with Hillary Clinton. And it could have seriously damaged his candidacy against John McCain. But the onset of the financial crisis that fall, and McCain’s feeble response to it, along with his choice of Sarah Palin as vice president, highlighted Obama’s strongest asset in the eyes of voters--his intelligence--and reduced the importance of his lack of a common touch.

As president, however, Obama’s lack of engagement with middle America has come to the surface and has contributed to his decline in popularity. This shortcoming has been evident in his style and choice of venues--he gave his endorsement of Coakley on Sunday at Northeastern University, in Boston, rather than at a union hall or public auditorium in Worcester or Springfield. It is also evident in his choice of advisors and spokespeople and in the way he has framed his programs.

He chose the former head of the New York Fed, Timothy Geithner, to be his chief economic spokesman during a financial crisis that was widely seen as the product of Wall Street. And in developing and presenting his policies on the banks, he didn’t put the kind of conditions on taxpayer assistance that would have assured middle America that they weren’t giving handouts to the wealthy. 

In the case of his health care plan, he did not really have a spokesman, but ceded the public face of the policy to the congressional leadership. Perhaps, he should have settled this year--when the recession heightened populist fears and resentments--for partial reforms that were more closely geared to the recession. Large reforms have usually occurred when the economy is on an upswing (1935, 1964-5) and voters feel a fundamental security. But leave that aside.

Where Obama invited a voter backlash was by letting the burden of reducing health care costs appear to fall on senior citizens and those middle-class workers who had acquired good health insurance through decades of union battles with management, and not on the insurance and drug companies. Obama ceded too much to the policy wonks who were devising intricate schemes to show they could cut the deficit. He took his eye of off the political imperative of keeping middle America in his corner.

Obama now clearly faces not just a recession and two wars, but a political crisis. He needs to adopt policies that will boost employment, but he may not have the political clout to do so. He needs to restore the public’s faith in his own leadership, but it’s not clear to me how he can accomplish that.

The last two Democratic presidents faced similar crises. After the Democrats got drubbed in the 1978 midterms, Jimmy Carter took exactly the wrong course. He replaced mediocre people with even more mediocre people. He allowed intramural squabbles to surface. He lost his focus and ended up blaming the American people for his political problems. Clinton, who had governed his first year as a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law graduate, rediscovered after November 1994 that he had been a successful governor of Arkansas. He governed for the remainder of his six years as the president of middle America, even resisting a furious attempt by Republicans to impeach him.

I am not sure how Obama can surmount this crisis. Obama does not seem, like Ronald Reagan or Clinton, to be a man of many faces. Even back in Chicago in the 1990s, it was clear that the man who had given up community organizing to become a lawyer and politician was more comfortable in Hyde Park than in Southeast or Northwest Chicago. Obama can try to make himself into a friend of Joe Sixpack and the enemy of Wall Street--he’s certainly trying to do so with his proposal to tax the big banks to pay for their bailout--but it’s not going to come naturally. Still, Obama has surprised his critics before, and perhaps (one hopes!) he will do so again.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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