One might expect Democrats to be euphoric during this holiday season. After recapturing control of Congress in 2006, and last year taking back the White House by electing America’s first African-American president, Democrats are now on the verge of passing a historic health care reform law. But instead of celebrating, they are bitterly divided. Former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean and liberal bloggers are urging the Senate to defeat the health care bill. Many are criticizing President Barack Obama for compromising too much, saying the proposal doesn’t go far enough, while more moderate and conservative Democrats are petrified the bill and the President’s agenda are too ambitious and will cost them re-election next year. Polls show that while a majority of Americans favour some form of health care reform, most oppose the current Democratic proposals.
The controversy over health care reform isn’t the beginning or the end of the problems facing President Obama and Democrats who increasingly fear that in next November’s midterm elections their 60-40 advantage in the Senate could be significantly diminished and they could lose outright control of the House of Representatives. In the last six weeks, four Democratic House members in swing districts have announced their retirements, putting their seats in grave danger. A fifth, newly-elected last year with $1,000,000 of party support, just announced he is changing parties, becoming a Republican. This honeymoon cruise with Barack Obama as President has hardly been smooth sailing.
While President Obama’s overall poll numbers aren’t good, they aren’t terrible either. More ominous for Democrats is the beating their party in Congress has taken this year. The party’s favourability ratings have plummeted almost as low as Republicans’. Democratic leaders in Congress have horribly low approval ratings and polls show this Congress is seen by Americans as among the worst ever. Though President Obama has managed to remain above much of the fray, his less agile former colleagues in Congress are bearing the brunt of an aggressive and ambitious legislative agenda of health care reform and climate change at a time when many Americans would prefer the focus to be on improving the worst economic conditions since the end of World War II and creating jobs.
Americans are of three minds about Mr. Obama. Though many Democrats are upset with his decision to send more troops into Afghanistan and believe his health care reform bill doesn’t go far enough, he still maintains an 84 per cent approval rating among party members in the Gallup Poll. They may dislike some of the specifics of his policies, but they still are still in love with him. Mr. Obama’s 17 per cent approval ratings among Republicans are indicative of the antipathy they feel for the new President. Generally speaking, Republicans don’t like him and find his legislative agenda quite objectionable. Even when many Republicans agree with him on a key decision, such as sending more troops to Afghanistan, they suspect his motives.
Among independents, the key swing voters in American politics, President Obama’s approval ratings began slipping below 50 per cent in July and are now at 45 per cent. Polls and focus groups show that independents personally like Mr Obama, respect his intellect and admire his vision. But they have begun questioning whether his view of the role of government may be considerably more expansive than he let on during the campaign, and are also becoming increasingly worried about the size of government and the escalation in the Federal budget deficit, which had already grown significantly under President George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama and his governing Democratic Party find themselves being squeezed between one group of Americans who want the Federal government to do more to create jobs and turn the economy around and a second group that believes government is taking on far too great a role, spending too much and accumulating enormous debt. As in the health care debate, there is no pleasing both camps.
The fact that the Republican Party is viewed with even more disfavour than Democrats could offset some of the party’s problems next year, though history shows that midterm election voters tend to punish the party in power more than to pass judgment on the party out of power.
Historians may some day praise Mr Obama’s vision and bold ambitions but at this point at least, the public is sceptical and his party apprehensive they may pay the price next year. Ultimately, the direction of the economy and specifically jobs, and how the war in Afghanistan goes over the next ten months will be the critical factors in next year’s elections. But there is no question, Democrats are anxious and have much to be worried about.
Charlie Cook, the Editor and Publisher of the Cook Political Report, an independent, non-partisan Washington DC-based newsletter covering American politics and a political analyst for NBC News and the National Journal.