The Damned Democrats

They're damned if they do and damned if they don't. That's where I think the Democrats and Obama are today.

Obama's numbers are suffering from the policy whiplash in Afghanistan, which reminds people of the war they don't like ... the economy, which is sending confusing signals and refuses to reveals its intentions about the future .. and the oil spill, which reminds people that things, overall, aren't working.  

Also, voters these days are hyperkinetic and have higher expectations from presidents (who set high bars themselves.) 

When you think about it, It's amazing that people don't think Obama spends enough time on economy and jobs. He spends most of his time on the economy and jobs. What he can do about these things is not clear.  

When people's expectations don't track with reality -- if only Obama just spent more time focusing on jobs!! -- there is very little that any organized political institution can do to persuade large groups of people to set aside their reality for the real reality. 

The Senate and House can pass legislation and no one seems to care.  In this environment, nothing will work until people feel better about themselves and their future Republicans are succeeding in engaging voters by enraging them -- only by making them angry. 

The Obama coalition (not the Democratic Party per se) was not an anger-based coalition. They won't feel less glum about their president until it becomes popular again to like President Obama. All the persuasion in the world won't make it popular to like Obama. What will is evidence that the economy is picking up, the war in Afghanistan is going well, racial and ethnic tensions have abated -- markers of progress. 

This is why the Obama political team ignores all the taunts about their obsessive focus on trying to persuade people that the Recovery Act was a good thing. They know that they're not going to change a lot of minds. They also know that by focusing on the only thing they control that's creating jobs, they can, at the very least, have the president show up at events where new jobs are created. We don't live in the 1980s where the the President and the White House dictated the image of the day...where the President's putting on a hard hat and testing a piece of equipment sent a signal that...hey, things are picking up.  People don't pay attention to the president in two week increments; they pay attention to what's being done in the microsecond they happen to tune in to whatever news source they like. 

Bemoan this reality all you want, but it is the reality. The macro political environment is dominated by external events, primarily, and secondarily, how major political actors respond to those events. Down the scale to the campaign level, good campaigns using scientifically validated targeting techniques matter; usually, bad candidates who don't fit either the mood of the electorate of the valence of the district don't do well in the end. 

Democrats have two options: they can throw up their hands and snipe at each other and take no risks over the next three months. One irony of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's complaints about Robert Gibbs's remark about the possibility that Democrats could lose the House is that so many more people will now be privy to the dispute. The Democrats can create their own bad luck.

Or, they can use the time they have to pass legislation they think is good for the country while making sure that Republicans can't simply surf the environment out there without taking responsibility for what they've done.

A cautionary note for Republicans: there are two dimensions to President Obama that voters seem to like. One -- they find him to be a capable commander in chief, with all that entails. Two -- majorities of voters want him to succeed. Rooting for failure might not be indicated.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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