Did President Obama Abandon His Base?

For months now, everyone has been asking, “Has Obama abandoned his base?” And with the midterms a week away, reliable leftists like Christopher Hayes of The Nation are ramping up the rhetoric, writing all about “Obama’s Forgotten Base."

But this is American politics, not some sort of sideshow. Nothing important happens overnight. Instead of expecting an 24-month miracle, after eight years of marching to the beat of a very different (and in this writer's opinion, disastrous) drummer, perhaps we should be asking: “Is the base abandoning Obama?” And, if so, “Why?”

While it is true that next week will be, at least in part, a referendum on President Obama, it has long been the case that a president's party fares poorly in midterm elections. This is a phenomenon due at least in part to a healthy wariness, in our democracy, of giving one party enough power to enact a wide-ranging legislative agenda. So while the pundits are predicting a big win for Republicans next week, even if they are right, it will simply be part of the historical continuum.

Don’t get me wrong: Such a result would be tied to Obama’s declining popularity ratings, at least in part.  The increasingly glum mood among voters who have yet to see the fruits of the economic recovery, high levels of unemployment, the damage to Obama’s image as a hands-on leader created by the Gulf oil spill, an anti-incumbency sentiment, and the anxiety over the size of the national debt, all combine to make this election season even more difficult for this governing party to navigate.

But what makes the "Midterms-Are-Supposed-To-Go-Badly-For-The-President's-Party" analysis trickier, this time around, is the sheer magnitude of opposition party failures before the current president took office.

Whether you are in Obama's base, or not, you need only cast your mind back:  Two short years ago, President Bush was widely seen as the most inept president of modern times. His party, in Congress, was discredited; the Republican economic agenda was acknowledged by much of the electorate as having landed the country in the worst financial trouble since the Great Depression; and the Republican foreign policy vision, as practiced by the neoconservatives who had taken the reins of the GOP, was greatly distrusted.

Not to take anything away from the candidate or his campaign, but President Obama's election was largely a reaction against President Bush and Republican Party priorities. Democrats made sweeping gains on the Hill; and in statehouse races across the country, voters also turned left. For the first time in a generation, Democrats were in control – and with big enough margins to enact sweeping reforms.

Had they failed to take advantage of this moment, we would today be talking about the negative voter reaction to that failed promise, a backlash based around shattered hopes and a sense of having been sold a bill of goods. But, the Democrats have not failed.

In fact, the last two years have arguably seen more major legislative change than any two-year period since FDR. Healthcare reform for the first time in our history; a stimulus package that avoided the iceberg of an economic depression; real Wall Street reform; student loan reform to educate more of our young people for competition on the world stage; and the list goes on. 

Even a glance in the rearview mirror ought to mobilize voters on the left. Yet, too many of us are instead locked in some sort of political paradox.  Indications are that voters -- progressive voters -- feel Obama hasn’t done enough.  They are disappointed and increasingly disaffected.  They wanted more from the administration in these first 2 years in office. After all that came before – they craved more, some sort of exorcism of their political pain.

Of course, it is fair to hold one’s politicians accountable. But it is important, also to be reasonable, practical.  If this discontent translates into a real “enthusiasm gap" at the polls, it will also result in significant gains for the GOP – a party that is increasingly ideological, and as such, unable to build coalitions to put forward the sorts of big-picture reforms needed to keep the country and the economy thriving.

The so-called base just might want to think about that before it abandons Obama on November 2nd.

Jami Floyd is a broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.