Meanwhile, a lesson for Democrats

obama-usMessage to Dems: the base is getting impatient.

Yesterday’s elections were a shot across the bow for the teabaggers, even though you’ll never get them to admit it, and a victory for old fashioned, establishment Republicans, who proved once again, that boring old messages like “change,” taxes, and even transportation, win elections. Swearing one’s sacred trust to Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, do not. But while yesterday’s races were, according to voters themselves, not a referendum on the president, there is a lesson in the Virginia and New Jersey losses for Democrats, and it comes down to who stayed home: namely, young voters and minorities.

Bottom line: the base didn’t come out for the Dems yesterday, in Virginia in part because the candidate, Creigh Deeds, was such an incompetent, he ran away from Barack Obama rather than toward him (Obama has a 52 percent approval rating among those who voted in Virginia according to exit polls, and 57 percent in New Jersey. Sorry, RedState…) In New Jersey, there was simply no rallying the troops for a former Wall Streeter who was as unpopular as he was unpleasant. Where the Republicans could send motivated senior citizens, who already were uncomfortable with the Democrat in the White House, to the polls, getting youger voters there would have taken something else, barring putting Barack Obama himself on the ballot.

That something else is “change.” Change is what people — especially young voters who normally don’t participate in the political process — came out in droves for last November. And while it is true, as Chris Matthews says, that people simply don’t understand government if they think the president can pull change out of his back pocket and slap it down on the table immediately upon taking the oath of office, it isn’t lost on most Americans that even with two-thirds of the Senate and an overwhelming majority in the House, the president and his party can’t seem to get a bill through Congress. To be fair, they did pass the stimulus package (though most of it hasn’t been spent yet) and they have done some important legislation the left wanted, like the Lily Ledbetter Act and a hate crimes bill. But those things are not the change people were looking for. On the big things: healthcare reform, climate change, and getting people back to work, a lot of folks are looking at this White House and Congress and asking: WTF???

The president seems a less than forceful advocate for getting things done on the Hill, and has yet to stop appearing to be just another member of Congressional society. He’s so nice to them, Republicans included, it almost drives you mad. Again, to be fair, Barack Obama seems to be a genuinely nice guy. The few times I have met him, and/or interviewed him, his fundamental “niceness” and decency comes through. But “nice” doesn’t always get it done in Washington. And watching the healthcare sausage get made, in particular, has caused much of the base — especially those not used to politics, to step back in shoulder slumping disappointment, if not horror. Fair or not, if the Democrats are to have a prayer of getting the base Obamacized again in 2010, the president and Congress are going to have to put some big wins on the table — and soon. (To which the president would likely say, “yeah, and why haven’t you solved world hunger yet, Obama?”)

As for Congressional Democrats, Alex at “A Grand Illusion” has it right:

Bottom line is that the Democrats are also in an ideological fight between the ones who wanted Obama to be more daring and the ones who believe he has to govern center-left. We’ll see what approach works better in the 2010 elections.

And John Harris at Poltico makes a similar point, after noting the irony that this president is viewed either as a dangerous radical who has fundamentally changed America, or a too-safe pol who hasn’t change America nearly enough, depending on whether you ask Rush Limbaugh or Arianna Huffington. Writes Harris:

Obama is the president as grand improvisationalist: a leader of epic ambitions who — when faced with a difficult choice — almost always pursues his aims with a pedestrian strategy and style.

This may be a shrewd approach to governing. But it manages almost by definition to defy and disappoint the huge — and wildly divergent — expectations Obama encouraged supporters to harbor for his presidency.

And the Harris article captures the essence of what was missing on the ground for Democrats yesterday:

“What surprises me most is the loss of Barack Obama as movement leader,” Malika Saada Saar, a human rights organizer, said on POLITICO’s Arena forum.

As Obama’s campaign reached its climax, in Saar’s memory, it conjured up echoes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now that he has entered office, she finds that spirit missing: “During this time of economic decline, two raging wars and an uncertain future for so many Americans, we need a movement-leader president who can call forward our courage and relentlessly move us toward making the difficult policy changes that we need.”

Ironically, Democrats have a version of the same problem the Republicans face: they can either go big, and ignite their base for 2010, or stay incremental, to hang onto moderates, but risk a repeat of Virginia and New Jersey, in which they allow the electorate to be older and whiter than the 2008 majority that put Obama and a Democratic majority in place. Unlike the Republicans, however, pleasing the base doesn’t mean going stark raving mad and running headlong toward third-party candidates (as some Dems did in 2000 with Nader, ensuring Al Gore’s defeat.) All it takes is for President Obama to push the agenda he ran for president on through Congress, with a little muscle to go along with that charm.

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