Make the Case, Mr. President

By Brian Goldsmith
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The House is already on its August recess; senators -- after confirming Elena Kagan -- will leave Friday. This summer's town halls aren't expected to be as raucous as last year's, when health care whipped the Tea Party into an angry rave, but Democrats' political fortunes might be even bleaker. President Obama's job approval is in the low to mid 40s. The GOP gained a 5 point lead on the generic congressional ballot and only half as many Democrats are "very enthusiastic" as Republicans about voting in the midterms.

Which is to say: if the election were held today, Democrats would lose at least five Senate seats and probably their majority in the House. The view among most political professionals is that two issues are driving the Democrats' decline: a painful economic recovery (which is depressing swing voters), and a confusing war in Afghanistan (which is depressing the party base).

Both problems exist, to some extent, outside the president's control. Whether particular policy choices have helped or hurt is a debate for another blog, another day. But they have been made harder to handle by messaging failures from the White House.

On the economy: Slow job growth, high unemployment, and disappointing second quarter GNP have all contributed to broad pessimism. In a new poll from Democratic strategist Stan Greenberg, voters feel worse about the economy than at any time in the last seven months. Sixty-four percent say the country is moving in the wrong direction; only 35 percent believe the economy is improving. As a result, Republicans have a bigger-than-ever 13 point lead on which party can be trusted to handle economic issues.

But the messaging failure is clear in that much of the public now believes what the Republicans have told them, rather than what the White House and most economists believe. Voters think cutting spending is the right remedy during a recession; they believe the stimulus failed to save jobs; they support the notion that Obama's policies played a big role in creating the deficit. Hooverism is now the country's dominant economic philosophy and the administration has failed to make an attractive alternative case.

On the war: Democrats have yet to articulate a compelling, overarching rationale for staying in Afghanistan. Instead, they have many rationales: Speaker Pelosi says it's in our "strategic national interest to be there" (why?); Vice President Biden says we "are there for al-Qaeda" not to nation-build (and yet, CIA Director Leon Panetta says there are fewer than 100 al-Qaeda in Afghanistan); Secretary Gates says "we are in Afghanistan because we were attacked from Afghanistan" (but terrorists can organize anywhere -- Yemen, Somalia, even the United Kingdom); Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says we made a mistake leaving in the late '80s and so we have to stay now (is that a good enough reason?); General Jim Jones, Obama's national security advisor, says if we lose in Afghanistan, terrorists have "more space to plot and train" (but is this just a game of whack-a-mole -- we get them there only to see al-Qaeda pop up everywhere else?).  

The Obama surge takes full effect at the end of this month. The president could use that moment as an opportunity finally to make a great case for his strategy. What were the arguments that persuaded him -- after so much careful study last fall -- to bet his political future on the necessity of "winning" in Afghanistan?

Until President Obama closes the message gap with his opponents, he will never earn voters' support on his handling of the economy and the war. And if he loses on the dominant issues, he will lose the midterm elections.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/08/make-the-case-mr-president/60946/