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Thursday, July 29, 2010

President Obama and Independent Voters - A Marriage of Convenience Heading for a Nasty Divorce?

The always great William Galston takes a look at just how much public opinion of the Democrats and Republicans has shifted among Independents. Galston considers the recent PEW poll
"On the whole, 58 percent of voters see Democrats as liberal or very liberal, while 56 percent see Republicans as conservative or very conservative; no surprise there. But voters now place themselves much closer to the Republican Party than to the Democratic Party on this left-right continuum. Indeed, the ideological gap between the Democratic Party and the mean voter is about three times as large as the separation between that voter and the Republican Party. And, startlingly, the electorate places itself a bit closer to the Tea Party movement (which is well to the right of the Republican Party) than to the Democratic Party. All this represents a major shift from five years ago, when mean voters placed themselves exactly halfway between their ideological perceptions of the Democratic and Republican parties."
Many political insiders have wondered why the Democrats and the Presidents are in such dire straits considering the success they have had enacting legislation - the stimulus, health reform, regulatory reform - by many measures this Congress and President have had one of the most productive sessions in years. Yet with each new bill approval of Congress seems to fall more and the President's approval rating is stuck in the mid 40s.

Why? Consider two more points from Galston:
  • "In May 2009, after Obama had taken office and the broad political debate had shifted away from social issues and national security toward the economy and federal regulation, Pew found that Independents had begun to move toward the Republican Party."
  • "Democrats are far more ideologically diverse than Republicans. Twenty-four percent of Democrats describe themselves as conservative or very conservative, while only 5 percent of Republicans call themselves liberal or very liberal."
Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency was a campaign very much lacking in specifics. He spoke of health reform, tax reform, financial reform - but offered few details. His campaign was also quite centrist - Obama criticized Hillary Clinton's health reform proposal for containing an individual mandate to purchase health insurance. He criticized John McCain's proposal to tax employer based health insurance like income as "extreme." Candidate Obama spoke the language of Centrism when he problems absolutely no tax increases for any American earning less than $250,000 per year. He tapped into growing voter concern over America's rising debt and deficits and promised to reduce both and put us on a path to a balanced budget. Finally, he rightly sensed voter anger over special interests, corruption in Congress, and cozy relationships between the Bush Administration and corporate interests by pledging a transparent and ethical administration that would not hire lobbyists.

Obama's message spoke directly to the concerns of Independent voters and they supported him on Election Day by a margin of 52% to 44%. In 2004 Bush and Kerry split Independents 48% to 49%. Independents also increased their share of the electorate between 2004 and 2008 from 26% to 29%. So Independents have become more crucial to a presidential candidate and they helped deliver the White House to Obama.

In July of 2009 Gallup reported that Obama's support among Independents stood at a strong 56% - that was after the passage of the stimulus bill, but just before the summer of health care reform townhall meetings that would foreshadow the tough reform battle in Congress. Today, Obama's approval rating among Independents stands out 38% - an 18 point decline in one year.

Why the decline? Because Obama's legislative successes have turned Independents away. The economic stimulus bill added more than $800 billion to the national debt - on top of the $800 billion bank bailout passed in the waning days of the Bush administration. As a result, the nation's deficit for 2009 totaled $1.4 trillion and the deficit for 2010 is estimated to reached $1.5 trillion - simply staggering figures.

Just as concern over the debt was reaching a critical mass las summer the health reform debate began. Estimates placed the cost of reform at $1 trillion over ten years - triggering more debt concerns. Other elements of the reform proposals caused more concern - the individual mandate that Obama had opposed during the campaign was now part of the mix as was a proposal to tax employer health benefits. The individual mandate included a tax penalty for failure to comply - so the two proposals that candidate Obama had criticized were now on the table and the pledge to not raise taxes was pushed aside.

The manner in which health reform passed further antagonized Independent voters. The use of budget reconciliation to pass the bill in the Senate following the surprise election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts and the brief flirtation with using the "deeming" process to pass the bill in the House so as to avoid politically painful votes struck many Independents as more of the "politics as usual" that Obama had promised to change. Worse, subsequent news accounts reported that the cost of reform may well be more than initially estimated - and in fact may well worsen our deficits and increase costs.

Promises of transparency have been undermined with recent news regarding financial regulation and word that it exempts the Securities and Exchange Commission for freedom of information act requests. Add to this the fact that Obama administration issued an executive order prohibiting the hiring of lobbyists and then went about issuing multiple exemptions to that order so that lobbyists could be hired.

Adding more fuel to the debt fire a just released report from the Congressional Budget Office warns that unless serious actions are taken - significant spending cuts, dramatic tax increases, or both - "growing budget deficits will cause debt to rise to unsupportable levels... In only one other period in U.S. history—during and shortly after World War II" has our debt reached its current levels.

But the CBO warns that tax increases "would discourage work and saving, further reducing output and incomes."

In sum, President Obama and Congressional Democrats have scored considerable legislative successes - but many of those successes contained elements that directly broke pledges made by the President during the 2008 campaign - pledges that were central to his gaining the support of Independents. This means that Democrats cannot go into the midterms touting their accomplishments. Instead, indications are that they will base their campaign not on why they are worthy of support, but rather on why Republicans are unworthy- including portraying Republicans as racist Tea Party fanatics. It's a desperate and risky tactic, but it's the only option they have. They cannot win back the support of Independents in the near term, so instead they are trying to depress their support for and turnout on behalf of Republicans.

It's a sad state of affairs and speaks to how much the Democrats' fortunes have changed in the last two years. Between 2002 and 2006 unified Republican government drove Independents into the arms of the Democrats. Four years later Democrats appear to be driving them right back. It remains to be seen whether the result will divided government, and if so, how Independents will react to that.