Assessing midterm losses, Democrats ask whether Obama's White House fully grasped voters' fears

By Karen Tumulty and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 12:46 AM

President Obama's failure to channel the anxieties of ordinary voters has shaken the faith that many Democrats once had in his political gifts and his team's political skill.

In his own assessments of what went wrong, the president has lamented his inability to persuade voters on the merits of what he has done, and blamed the failure on his preoccupation with a full plate of crises.

But a broad sample of Democratic officeholders and strategists said in interviews that the disconnect goes far deeper than that.

"There doesn't seem to be anybody in the White House who's got any idea what it's like to lie awake at night worried about money and worried about things slipping away," said retiring Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D). "They're all intellectually smart. They've got their numbers. But they don't feel any of it, and I think people sense that."

Bredesen had voiced such reservations long before the election, but more Democrats are saying the same thing after Tuesday's defeats - although few are willing to cross the White House by doing so publicly.

Obama "is not Bill Clinton in the sense that he's not an extrovert. He doesn't gain energy by connecting with people," said a Democratic strategist, who worked in the Clinton White House and asked not to be named while offering a candid criticism. "He needs to be forced to do it, either by self-discipline or others. There's no one around him who will do that. They accommodate him, and that is a bad thing."

William A. Galston, a Clinton White House policy adviser who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the midterm election revealed what had always been a "missing middle" to the Obama campaign message.

"Hope is a sentiment, not a strategy, and quickly loses credibility without a road map," Galston wrote in a paper released two days after the election. "Throughout his first two years in office, President Obama often struggled to connect individual initiatives to larger purposes."

With the public skeptical of and even hostile to his biggest accomplishments, including the economic stimulus package and the health-care overhaul, Obama fell back on a plea to voters not to turn back to failed Republican policies. That appeal "just missed what was happening with the country and with people," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.

Still, Democrats remain divided between their moderate and liberal wings over whether the president should continue to push hard with his agenda or move to the center to try to accommodate the Republicans in Congress.

What could turn that tension to open warfare within the party is the decision of outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to run for the job of minority leader in the next Congress, despite the fact that she had become a symbol of what Republicans called big-government overreach.

Window of opportunity

As Democrats try to get back on their feet and adjust to the new reality of divided government, they say there are opportunities to be found in the next two years. Anxious, impatient, dissatisfied voters, they say, did not embrace the GOP agenda but rather rejected the way business got done in Democratic-controlled Washington.

And while Tuesday night in the view of Democrats was a bad one for Obama and his party - giving Republicans control of the House, six more seats in the Senate and a solid majority of governorships - it did not follow the pattern of other recent political waves, when nearly all the close elections went to one party. Democrats were able to prevail in some tight, high-profile races for Senate and governor.

Perhaps because of those victories, or perhaps because for once they saw what was coming, veteran Democrats in Washington and across the country did not seem as shell-shocked as they had after previous repudiations.

"Sweeping judgments of what these elections mean are always faulty and terribly overstated," said retiring Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who recalled the upheavals of 1974, 1980, 1986, 1992, 1994, 2006, 2008 and 2010.

History shows ample precedent for a comeback two years from now, Democratic leaders say, but it will take two things: The economy will have to improve in ways that Americans can feel in their daily lives, and independent voters will have to regain confidence in Obama, who now has a second chance to prove he is the post-partisan conciliatory figure they voted for in 2008.

"Understanding the challenges isn't complicated," said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. "How we answer them may be."

In the White House, Washington veterans such as chief of staff Pete Rouse, Vice President Biden's chief of staff Ron Klain and legislative affairs head Phil Schiliro have been looking at parallels with earlier political upheavals. They have cautioned their colleagues that the differences between those times and today are at least as important as the similarities.

For instance, White House aides say, trying to imitate Clinton's small-bore initiatives such as promoting school uniforms and television V-chips would look inadequate when unemployment is still hovering close to 10 percent. And with the rise of Fox News and the blogosphere, Obama is confronting a media environment more partisan than anything Clinton faced.

Some of the Democratic unease following the election is over Obama's style and the insularity of a White House operation where decision-making is still tightly held by the same people who guided his presidential campaign, the president's Democratic allies say.

Republicans also have some important political factors working in their favor as they look for additional gains in 2012. Not only is Obama potentially more vulnerable, but he will no longer have crucial gubernatorial allies on the ground in such swing states as Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

And the Senate map for 2012 looks treacherous for Democrats. They will be defending 23 seats, including those of the two independents who caucus with them, many in conservative or swing states. Republicans hold only 10 that will be on the ballot.

Nor should Democrats count on Republicans to make the same kinds of mistakes they have in the past, despite the friction between the establishment and tea party wings of their party.

Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumed next House speaker, has been around long enough to understand how perishable is the trust of the voters. Boehner "knows ultimately he's going to have to produce results, and if he doesn't, he'll have a short speakership," Dodd said.

One early issue where Obama and Boehner are likely to find common ground is on the latter's call for a ban on earmarks, those infamous provisions slipped into spending bills that direct money to projects favored by individual lawmakers and special interests.

Obama had campaigned on a promise to curb the practice, but ended up signing a spending bill laden with thousands of them as one of his first acts in office.

Many also expect the president and congressional Republicans to find that it is in their mutual interest to strike a compromise on extending the Bush tax cuts, perhaps including those for the wealthiest Americans, at least temporarily.

The president's debt and deficit commission is scheduled to make its recommendations in coming weeks, possibly opening other areas where the two parties can work together.

But there will be many tough calls to make as Obama tries to decide how far he can go toward compromising with the Republicans without alienating the left in his own party.

Choosing a path

The greatest and most immediate danger is in not getting anything done, many senior Democrats say.

"For the moment, he's got to ignore the pleas from the extreme part of our party, and not go to war. He's got to reach out on everything," said retiring Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, who saw his party lose the governorship, a Senate seat and five House seats in his state. "Will that anger a slight portion of our base? Yes. But he's got to go ahead and do it."

More liberal Democrats counter that this is not the time for retreat. In their view, what was really lacking in the election season was a more robust defense of the president's record in the face of a barrage of Republican attacks.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who will be up for reelection in two years, said the president must campaign more aggressively and draw greater distinctions with the Republicans, many of whom want to repeal health-care reform.

"I think he needs to sharpen the debate on economic issues and show what repeal of the health-care bill will mean to the average citizen. I think he needs to sharpen the debate on the recovery act," the $814 billion package of spending and tax cuts aimed at revving up the economy, Brown said. "Republicans for two years campaigned against the Obama agenda while we were doing things. Their intransigence paid off."

Even those Democrats who are urging Obama toward bipartisanship say there will come moments for drawing the line, particularly when the Republicans begin trying to carry out their pledge to reduce the budget by $100 billion next year.

Although the overall goal is popular, the actual cuts it will take to get there are likely to be ugly.

One of the early missteps for the Republicans who took charge of Congress in 1995, for instance, was an effort to curb the growth in the school lunch program. Democrats say the GOP could have a similar problem now, if it tries to cut food stamps or unemployment benefits while joblessness is high and the number of people in poverty is growing.

"Our road back is to be focusing on the average middle income family," says Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "The voter will choose no government over a government that works for someone else. But they will choose a government that helps them over no government every time."

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