Democrats Are Facing an Identity Crisis

Tea Party types are not the only ones boiling mad. President Obama’s supporters are angry at a White House they think has grown insular, and at a president who’s lost his touch. The African-American woman who told Obama in a CNBC town-hall meeting this week that she was tired of defending him expressed the searing disappointment that so many Democrats feel. It’s mind-boggling how poorly the White House has related to its friends, putting up a wall of cool and refusing to hit the panic button even as the Democrats’ congressional majorities slip away.

Obama’s backers were right during the campaign when they fretted that he wasn’t responding forcefully enough to the threat posed by Sarah Palin, who for a few nervous weeks had them worrying that John McCain had uncovered a secret weapon. But then Palin imploded and Obama’s steadiness won the day. Obama took too long to get aggressive with Hillary Clinton in the primaries too, and he still prevailed. But with the midterms less than six weeks away, the White House’s bubble-like mentality is reminiscent of the Bush-Rove White House: outsiders and bad news not welcome.

Granted, there are some encouraging signs for Democrats, among them that Larry Summers will return to Harvard, giving Obama an opening to reshape his economic team, and that Elizabeth Warren is signing on as a top adviser to put a more populist face on the administration’s policies. Democrats who love Obama, worked for him, and want him to succeed fear for his political survival, and for the progressive agenda that he represents. “It’s pretty clear the Republicans will make his life a living hell,” says a Democratic consultant who has advised the Obama team in the past and doesn’t want to be quoted criticizing his friends. But he’s not sure they realize what losing the House majority means in terms of derailing the Obama agenda and harassing the administration.

An emboldened GOP could crank up the impeachment machine, finding grounds where none may exist, just to kick around the idea. The effort to delegitimize Obama as president has been underway since before he took office, and if a new and more conservative majority takes hold on Capitol Hill, the percentage of Americans who question whether Obama was born in the United States will likely rise. Obama is the third president to contend with questions about his legitimacy—Bill Clinton took office with a plurality and had a well-organized and -financed right-wing opposition undermining him from the start, and George W. Bush lost the popular vote and was installed by a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, which had left-wingers up in arms.

Democrats are going through some serious soul-searching. They won their majorities and the White House thanks to Bush and an unpopular war, but without Bush as a foil, maybe they would still be wandering in the political wilderness. There’s a loss of confidence. If Obama has lost his touch, so have they. Can they win elections and gain ground without Bush on the scene? Obama was a prodigy in ’08, mastering the Internet to connect with people and inspiring millions of new voters with his intellect and his personal narrative. But then he came to Washington and joined the government and became legislator in chief.

The problem is that governing successfully is not about legislation, it’s about culture and vision, keeping that connection with the people and giving them reason to believe in the course you’ve set, whether or not it gets 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans are advancing the notion that Obama will stand down for reelection—why else would he continue to press ahead with political losers like cap-and-trade and immigration that they can so easily caricature as bad for the country? Their theory is that as a card-carrying member of the intellectual elite, Obama is more comfortable in a university library than battling a conservative backlash.

Other than Lyndon Johnson, whose war policies forced him out of the race, you have to go back to Calvin Coolidge to find a president who walked away from his reelection. With the announcement that David Axelrod is leaving the White House to focus on the reelection, we can discard the theory that Obama does not sufficiently care about maintaining power for himself and his party. He wouldn’t have taken on the Clinton machine if he didn’t care, and in the time remaining before the midterms render their judgment, he and his aides, who have grown far too defensive, should recognize the validity of what that African-American woman said to him in the town hall.

It took courage for her to stand up and tell the president to his face that he’s let her down. Campaign operatives who sided with Obama against Hillary Clinton, often at some personal cost, aren’t regretting the choice they made, but some wonder whether the magic can be recaptured. I got an earful this week when I made some calls. “The Obama we fell in love with on the campaign trail is gone,” lamented one activist. “I don’t know where that Obama is.”

Eleanor Clift is also the author of  Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.