It’s hardly surprising that analysis of Barack Obama’s sudden viability as a presidential candidate dwells on race. He is, after all, a black man whose main source of popularity at present seems to be with white voters. Like Colin Powell, moreover, he is often described as a black man almost perfectly engineered to appeal to white voters, at potential risk to the “authenticity” deemed essential to attact the African-American voters who are so important in the Democratic presidential nominating process, at leasts when it pivots beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.Peter Beinert has an article up on the New Republic site examining the Powell parallel in detail, suggesting that Obama represents an implicit repudiation of other, more “authentic” African-American politicians, which could create a backlash among black voters generally. And last week Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post examined African-American ambivalence towards Obama, as reflected in his little-known congressional primary loss to Bobby Rush in 2000.There’s also the simple data point that national polls currently show Hillary Clinton trouncing Obama among black Democrats, which makes his overall robust poll numbers that much more remarkable.But while fascinating, these race-based takes on Obama don’t come to grips with the genesis of his startling appearance on the national political scene in August of 2004, when few Americans knew much about his personal story, or had experienced his “charisma” or marveled at his political skills. Ever since his famous Democratic Convention speech, Obama has been articulating what might be called the Great Alternative Democratic Message, and it clearly has some clout.What is that message? It could be described as “The New American Patriotism,” or “The Politics of Higher Common Purpose,” or “Towards One America,” or even “Meeting the Big Challenges.” But whatever the precise rhetoric, its core is to suggest that Democrats can and will lift politics and government out of the slough of polarization, culture wars, smears and sheer pettiness characterized by the Bush-Rove era, transcending party and ideology to unite the country around an agenda that really matters.This was the meta-message Stan Greenberg urged Democrats to embrace in 2004 in his pre-election book, The Two Americas. It was the original theme of John Kerry’s campaign, until Bob Shrum convinced him to shift in the autumn of 2003 to a message focused on the candidate’s biography (with fateful, perhaps fatal, consequences a year later). It was then picked up (or perhaps, according to insiders, accepted as a gift from former Kerry advisor Chris Lehane) by Wes Clark, whose campaign never really got its act together. And it was echoed in some respects by John Edwards, though his “one America” aspiration drew much less attention than his neo-populist “two Americas” indictment of the status quo.But this alternative message never got a full test until Barack Obama, at the time still a state senator, made it the core of his “Red, White and Blue America” speech in Boston. And it’s still Obama’s distinctive message.That’s one important reason for the half-submerged skepticism about Obama in some precincts of the progressive blogosphere, where all his talk about unity and civility sometimes sounds uncomfortably like the much-despised “bipartisanship” of party centrists. But it still strikes a chord in the electorate, I suspect.Obama must, of course, soon begin to fill out a more detailed message and agenda that explains exactly what Democrats should do to transcend the counter-polarization of the 2006 campaign and expand the party base, without repudiating principles or sacrificing unity. His success or failure in doing that may in the end have a greater impact on his candidacy than his alleged role in some great national psychodrama about race and identity.UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey
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By Ed Kilgore
After absorbing a lot of Democratic gloom-and-doom about the midterms, I offered some silver lining at New York:
The 2022 midterms don’t look great for Democrats, who will try to buck history by hanging on to super-slim congressional majorities. Thanks to the particular lay of the land, Democrats have a decent chance of maintaining control of the Senate. But the House? Not so much: The two times since the New Deal when the president’s party won net House seats in a midterm (1998 and 2002), the president in question had sky-high job-approval ratings. Even if you believe Joe Biden’s plunge in popularity has been stemmed or even turned around a bit, he’s not going to have 60 percent-plus approval in November 2022 unless really crazy things happen. There’s just too much partisan polarization for that these days.
Thankfully for Democrats, even if they lose their congressional majorities next year, Biden himself won’t be an underdog for reelection in 2024. After all, the last two Democratic presidents were reelected after historically terrible midterms. Democrats lost 54 U.S. House seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010. Yes, they had bigger majorities going into those elections than Democrats have now. But they lost the national House popular vote by an identical 6.8 percent in both midterms, which is pretty bad, particularly since Democrats suffer from a voter-inefficiency problem in House elections (too many voters concentrated in too few districts).
It’s possible for a president’s party to lose a midterm so badly that bouncing back in the next cycle is all but impossible. Consider the man whose unique comeback accomplishment Donald Trump will be emulating if he runs in 2024, Grover Cleveland. The president Cleveland defeated in an 1892 rematch, Benjamin Harrison, was a Republican whose party lost an incredible 93 House seats in the 1890 midterms. This, mind you, was at a time when the House had only 332 members, which means the GOP lost over half their caucus in one cycle (an even worse percentage than in 1894, when Democrats lost a record 125 House seats during the midterm after Cleveland’s comeback triumph). In this era of polarization, nothing like that is going to happen to Democrats in 2022.
Looking more broadly at the power of incumbency, there have been 13 sitting presidents since World War II who were on the general election ballot. Nine of them won. The four losers all faced special circumstances. Gerald Ford had not previously been elected to anything more than the U.S. House; he ascended to the vice-presidency and then the presidency when disgraced predecessors resigned, and he pardoned the president who appointed him, the especially disgraced Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter was caught up in a historical realignment that he had held off four years earlier by carrying his native South, which then resumed a massive Republican trend. George H.W. Bush suffered from a terrible economy but then also a party split (third-party candidate Ross Perot won a lot of previously Republican voters). And we all know about Donald J. Trump, who was impeached twice and seemed determined to offend swing voters.
In retrospect, what’s most remarkable is that Ford and Trump very nearly got reelected despite their handicaps, exhibiting not the weakness but the strength of incumbency. And it’s with that perspective that any early handicapping of a potential 2024 rematch should be considered. Trump benefited from incumbency in 2020, as will Biden in 2024. So the idea that the 45th president has some built-in advantage over the 46th — absent the renewed election coup so many of us fear — doesn’t make a lot of sense.