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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 eve of the November 1994 election. Barack Obama knows now, barely a year into his presidency. While party loyalists might blame Martha Coakley’s defeat on her ignorance of Red Sox baseball, it was clearly a message to the president and his party. A less inept candidate might have beaten Scott Brown, but, if Obama’s program and presidency were more popular in Massachusetts, even Coakley could have won--and maybe by double digits.

There were no exit polls, only electionnight samples by Hart Research Associates and Rasmussen Reports, but some polls taken before the vote show Obama’s role in Coakley’s defeat. In a January 16–17 survey by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, which picked up Brown’s surge early in the month, 20 percent of 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.

In fact, the percentage of Obama voters who said they’d back Brown almost perfectly matched the percentage who were dissatisfied with the president’s health care plan. According to Rasmussen, 52 percent of Brown voters rated health care as their top issue--a clear indication that they viewed the election in national terms.

The most important question raised by Coakley’s loss is not what she could have done better, but why Obama’s political popularity (which is different from whether voters still “like” him personally) is so low that a Democrat could lose Massachusetts. A conservative Republican Senate candidate winning the Bay State, which Obama carried 62 percent to 36 percent in 2008, is comparable to a liberal Democrat carrying Utah.

If you believe the blogs, the Democrats lost Massachusetts and Obama’s approval rating is plummeting because the president has alienated his left-wing base. But polls haven’t shown simmering dissatisfaction among young, minority, or liberal voters--the three voting blocs that accounted for Obama’s strongest support in 2008. Where he and the Democrats have lost ground, in Massachusetts and nationwide, is primarily among white working and middle-class voters, along with senior citizens.

In the Hart post-election poll, Coakley lost non-college voters, whom Obama had won by 21 points, by 20 points--a huge 41-point swing--while winning college-educated voters by five points. With African Americans, who backed Coakley, accounting for less than 10 percent of the vote, this suggests a dramatic shift among the white working class. In the actual results, Coakley lost two bellwether white working-class towns, Gardner and Fitchburg, by 14 and 19 points, respectively, after Obama had carried both by 20-plus points.

There is no similar gauge for how seniors voted. But a Suffolk University poll, taken January 11–13, shows that the age group most strongly favoring Brown was 65 to 74-year-olds, by 58 percent to 38 percent. Forty-eight percent of the same group opposed national health insurance, and 41 percent said they “strongly opposed” Obama’s plan. This was also the only group that disapproved (albeit narrowly) of the job Obama is doing as president.

If you look at national polls, Obama has suffered the greatest approval loss among these same groups. In a Pew survey released January 14, his support among whites in the $30,000–$74,999 group fell from 52 percent to 41 percent approval in June 2009 to 55 percent to 36 percent disapproval. Among whites with some or no college, he fell from 49 percent to 40 percent approval to 54 percent to 35 percent disapproval. And, among all respondents over 65, he fell from 50 percent to 38 percent approval to 54 percent to 35 percent disapproval.

Why do these groups matter? Since the Democratic Party split in the 1960s, the white working class has been a key vote. Its departure from the Democrats in the South helped transform the region from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. And, in Northern and Midwestern states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, it’s been the swing vote. It’s fair to say that, if a Democrat can get about 45 percent of the white working-class vote, he can carry Ohio. (Obama got about 44 percent.) But, if he gets 40 percent or less, he will lose the state--and the national race.

The senior citizen vote overlaps with the white working-class vote to some extent, but it has special importance because older voters come out disproportionately in midterm elections. If the Democrats continue to lose seniors, as Coakley appears to have done, they will get clobbered in November 2010. We’re not talking two or three Senate seats, but as many as eight. Not 20 or 25 House seats, but maybe between 30 and 40.

Why have these two groups distanced themselves from Obama and the party? They haven’t viewed Obama’s presidency in a fundamentally different way than many other voters, but they’ve been the greatest source of populist anger directed at the administration.

Working-class populism has always taken two forms: The first--let’s call it left-wing populism--has typically been directed at speculators who make money off of people who work in factories and offices but 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” seen as trying to deprive workers of their jobs and earnings. These two strains often appear together, and they are most concentrated among the embattled classes--those that see themselves threatened from above and below.

Obama goaded left-wing populism by using tax dollars to rescue the auto companies and to sustain the banks and their executive bonuses. In the Hart poll in Massachusetts, 61 percent of respondents said Obama’s economic policies had helped Wall Street and the banks “a lot” or “a fair amount,” while only 18 percent said they helped average working people. In a national poll by National Journal, 76 percent thought banks, investment companies, major corporations, and the wealthy had “benefited most” from the government’s response to the financial crisis.

And the Democrats have provoked both strains of populism with their health care plan. The middle class and senior citizens see it as a program that taxes and takes benefits away from them in order to help the uninsured--the “out-groups”--and to enrich insurance companies. This perception is derived in part from the provisions to tax “Cadillac” health care plans (which are sometimes held by middle-class union members), penalize workers who don’t buy insurance, and cut future Medicare spending, while providing new subscribers and profits for insurance companies.

Suspicions about Obama’s health care plan have made it almost as unpopular as the bank bailout. Unsurprisingly, in his January 17 speech on behalf of Coakley, the president relegated his health care policies to two passing mentions of insurance companies.

Is this political failure Obama’s fault? Much of the administration’s declining popularity can be attributed to rising joblessness. In this respect, the only way Obama could have prevented, or eased, his approval’s decline would have been to get Congress to adopt a much larger stimulus program last winter. (And, even if he had tried to do so, he most likely would have been thwarted by Republican obstructionists and Democratic deficit hawks.) In the last few months, however, approval of Obama’s presidency has fallen far faster than the unemployment rate has risen. This suggests that Obama’s political woes can’t be laid entirely at the foot of the Great Recession.

His problem boils down to the difficulty he has speaking to and for Middle America. This became evident during the primary battle with Hillary Clinton, and it threatened to seriously damage his candidacy in the general election. But he was rescued by the onset of the financial crisis and John McCain’s feeble response to it, along with his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. The situation 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 trouble engaging with Middle America has come to the surface and contributed to his decline in popularity. It’s been evident in his style and choice of venues--he stumped for Coakley at Northeastern University in Boston, rather than at a union hall or public auditorium in Worcester or Springfield--and in his choice of advisers and the way he’s 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 bank policies, Obama didn’t put the kind of conditions on taxpayer assistance that would have assured Middle America he wasn’t giving handouts to the wealthy.

In the case of health care, he hasn’t really had a spokesperson; he’s let the congressional leadership be the public face of the policy. Perhaps he should have settled last year--when the recession heightened populist fears and resentments--for partial reforms more closely geared toward the economic crisis. Large reforms, after all, have usually occurred during economic upswings, when voters felt more secure. But leave that aside. Obama invited voter backlash when he let the burden of reducing health care costs appear to fall on senior citizens and middle-class workers, not on the insurance and drug companies. He ceded too much to the policy wonks who were devising intricate schemes to show that they could cut the deficit. He took his eye off of the political imperative of keeping Middle America in his corner.

To surmount this crisis, Obama 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 how he can accomplish that.

The last two Democratic presidents faced similar problems. After the Democrats were rebuked 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 next six years as the president of Middle America, in spite of a furious attempt by Republicans to impeach him.

Obama doesn’t seem, like Clinton or Reagan, to be a man of many faces. He 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 recoup bailout losses--but it’s not going to come naturally. Still, Obama has surprised his critics before, and perhaps (one hopes!) he will do so again.