The Washington Post

Obama warns Democrats that midterms could imperil his agenda — and America

On the West Coast to raise millions of dollars for his party, President Obama spent the second half of this week preaching to rich supporters about why Democrats are better than Republicans. It sounded like a conventional stump speech in the windup to the midterm battle — including a rote apology to the first lady for running another campaign.

Listen closely, however, and you could hear the president making a much more dramatic statement about the importance of this year’s elections.

As he toured a series of mansions, Obama made the case that should Democrats fail to keep their hold on the Senate and do not win back the House, both his second-term priorities and the country’s future could be imperiled.

He described the public’s dissatisfaction with Washington as nearly at a tipping point, where working-class Americans see leaders as unresponsive to their most basic concerns. If that were to continue, he said, more middle-class Americans could dismiss the political process completely.

“You’ve got a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Obama said Wednesday night in Los Angeles at the home of Walt Disney Studios chief executive Alan Horn and his wife, Cindy. “People who have the most at stake in a government that works opt out of the system. Those who don’t believe that government can do anything are empowered. Gridlock reigns, and we get this downward spiral of even more cynicism and more dysfunction.”

In this appearance and others, Obama warned that such apathy would show up primarily among young, minority and working-class voters — precisely the groups that Democrats need to head to the polls to win the midterms.

And if Democrats fail to win, he said, the United States could be at risk of losing the luster that has defined it for so many years.

“There’s no other country that looks like us. It’s a huge gift,” he said Thursday night in San Jose at an event hosted by Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo, and Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator. “The problem is that we’ll waste that gift if we don’t make the right choices.”

The president rejected the idea that the United States is in decline, but he said it could happen if the right steps are not taken to invest in the economy.

“What is absolutely true is if we don’t make good choices, we could decline,” Obama said.

Obama has long described stark differences between the Democratic and Republican visions for the economy. But what was striking about his comments this week was that he described the stakes for the midterm elections in almost catastrophic terms.

Does Obama actually believe that failing to win a single election could leave voters permanently detached or edge the country toward global decline? The words could have been for dramatic effect, a kick-in-the-rear for Democrats who tend to have, in his words, “a congenital defect” in sitting out midterms.

But taken at face value, Obama’s remarks suggest that, despite the progress made since the financial crisis and recession from 2008 to 2009, he sees the country as deeply vulnerable if gridlock endures.

At the home of Irwin Jacobs, founder of the telecom giant Qualcomm, and his wife, Joan, Obama said that middle-class Americans have been hurt by decades of stagnation in their quality of life and now have a vanishing faith in the government’s ability to help.

“For ordinary Americans, growth in productivity, the incredible innovation and transformation of our economy hasn’t translated into greater financial security,” he said. “It hasn’t translated into the sense that the next generation can do what and did what Irwin did and Joan did — that maybe our horizons are more limited. That’s how people feel.”

Obama put the blame for failing to make progress squarely on the Republicans — “a party that has been captive to an ideology, to a theory of economics, that says those folks, they’re on their own and government doesn’t have an appropriate role to play.”

In the upcoming elections, he said, Democrats must “break that grip.” Unless his party takes control of Congress, Obama said, he is not going to be able to implement the most important features of his agenda and set the country on what he considers the right path — “regardless of how hard I push, regardless of how many administrative actions I take.”

Left dangling at the end of each of his fundraisers was a basic question: How are he and the Democrats going to pull it off this November? Polls and forecasting models show Democrats at high risk of losing control of the Senate, and with almost no chance of capturing the House.

Obama predicted that Democrats will win because polls also show that the American people support the party on most issues, and he urged his wealthy supporters to encourage their friends to vote. But beyond those exhortations, it was not clear what else he can do.

The point was underscored earlier in the week. Before traveling to California, Obama flew to Arkansas to tour a town devastated by a tornado and meet with first responders and families of those who died. The trip was devoid of politics.

Otherwise, Obama would not have been seen in Arkansas this year — even though the state’s Democratic senator, Mark Pryor, is in the midst of one of the most competitive Senate races in the country. Obama is unpopular in Arkansas. And the emergency visit notwithstanding, Pryor is keeping his distance.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.

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