Democrats got the lowest share of the white vote in this midterm election than in any congressional election since World War II, losing key races in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Michigan, and every contested election in Ohio, which spells trouble for President Obama’s reelection. No Democrat can win the White House without these Midwestern swing states, and they are all decimated by job losses that Obama has offered no road map to recover.
Soul-searching is under way at the White House, but so far it looks pretty sterile. There’s no Dick Morris sneaking in with advice from outside the bubble, or late-night bull sessions with Terry McAuliffe about how to raise money and stage a comeback. Granted, some of the tactics these Clinton-era advisers used wouldn’t pass muster with the Obama crowd, or with Common Cause, but they shook up the White House and got Clinton out of his post-election funk and into fighting form.
Part of Obama’s problem is that there’s too much hero worship around him, and that translates into a reluctance to fault him for anything, except maybe that he didn’t make a good enough case for all the wonderful things he’s done. He has done good things, but the voters don’t give you credit for saving them from a depression; they reward you for making their lives better, and that hasn’t happened. The bankers on Wall Street are doing fine, but the other 80 percent of the country is hurting, and that’s not supposed to happen when a Democrat is in the White House.
Obama’s storied political career took him from the relative obscurity of the Illinois State Legislature to the presidency in such a short time that he didn’t get much of a feel for the nitty-gritty politicking that consumes so much of today’s partisan bickering. He didn’t have the benefit of getting beaten badly at the state level, like Clinton was in Arkansas, and having to learn how to reinvent himself. Clinton was the youngest governor elected in the state, and the voters tossed him out after two years, angry that he had raised car-tag fees and housed several thousand Cuban refugees, many of whom had been prisoners, at a local military base. Clinton went around the state apologizing and getting an earful, and what emerged was a newly humble public servant, one who felt the people’s pain, and whose wife seemed more supportive as well, trading in her signature Hillary Rodham and taking her husband’s last name for the first time in their marriage. Clinton has said of that early loss that it taught him more about politics than anything before or since.
In his post-election press conference, Obama said there must be easier ways to learn the hard lessons of politics than getting the shellacking he and the Democrats got. There are, and if his aides weren’t so in love with him and wrapped up in the idea of him as a transformational president, they might have seen this coming. Obama’s problems with white working-class voters surfaced during the primaries, when he lost West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio to Hillary, and those problems could prove lethal in 2012 not only for Obama but for the five Democratic senators who are up for reelection in the Midwest and the Rust Belt.
Obama is an undefined figure to much of the country, and to his fellow Democrats. Though he’s portrayed as a liberal, it’s not clear what he’ll fight for, and he keeps that deliberately vague, perhaps hoping to deliver on the post-partisan promise his election represented. The fight over whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts is a perfect example. The White House needs to settle on a strategy and then execute it, whatever it is. Hope is not a strategy, and the extent to which Obama seems to weigh the political considerations of whatever decision he makes reinforces the voters’ disillusionment that rather than leading, he has instead become part of the government—an implicit admission of his failure to bring about the change he ran on.
What he needs are some hard-nosed policies to rescue the millions of homeowners who are underwater, plus a vision to revive the nation’s manufacturing base to begin the long and painful restoration of jobs. He needs people around him who make him uncomfortable, who challenge his world view, and who have a better understanding of the workings of Capitol Hill, however dysfunctional it has become. The people around Obama caught the lightning in ’08, but they’ve been outmaneuvered by a party that two years ago was on the brink of extinction.
This is not the end of the Obama presidency, far from it, but it is time to take courageous stands on behalf of working people so these disaffected voters, whom we used to call Reagan Democrats, understand that their financial self-interest is with Obama and the Democrats and not with the Tea Party. Those voters will be a smaller portion of the electorate in 2012 as more young people and people of color come to the polls when the presidency is at stake, but their voices count, and if Obama doesn’t address their concerns, one party will benefit, and it won’t be the Democrats.
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.