Caving in to the politics of 'No you can't'

Henry Champ on how Barack Obama lost his way.

It's unbelievable when you think about it. Particularly in the light of Barack Obama's historic election just two years ago.

Today, the president and his Democratic Party are sifting through polling data that shows Republicans headed towards a crushing victory in Tuesday's midterm elections, a potential tsunami of ballots that could sweep the Grand Old Party to victory in both the House and Senate.

Like deer in headlights, Democrats seem frozen, waiting for the impact.

Though what is also remarkable about this midterm vote is that these same polls show the Republicans are more unpopular than the incumbents; that voters don't like their ideas and are uncertain the GOP is the answer to the nation's problems.

This has never happened before in my memory. But the American voter is uncommonly angry, in some cases angry and afraid for the future, and the Democrats seem to have no answers to avert a disaster on Nov. 2.

Nothing to laugh about: President Barack Obama gestures during an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Oct. 27, 2010. Some Democrats are wondering where the passion has gone. ((Charles Dharapak/Associated Press))

The overwhelming issue is the struggling U.S. economy.

The White House argues that its stimulus plan has worked and that the calamity of today would have been far worse had the government not poured nearly $1 trillion into the marketplace.

Most economists agree with that, but swing voters, mostly independents, do not.

What those voters care most about is the unemployment figure, which, month after month, has stood at 9.6 per cent. No matter how much money was heaped on the problem.

Attempts to pass the blame to former president George W. Bush worked for a time but, two years into the Obama regime, that argument has worn thin.

It didn't matter that Republican leaders Mitch McConnell in the Senate and John Boehner in the House voted for the stimulus package, the so-called TARP program that began under Bush.

Ownership of the issue has now shifted decisively to Barack Obama.

The politics of No

In the past, midterm elections have generally run on local issues. With the president not on the ballot, most often the key issue is the performance of Congress.

Not this time. And not even at a moment when Congress is being looked down upon by nearly three-quarters of Americans, according to many polls.

The Republicans have managed make the election a mandate on Obama and the tactic is proving to be very successful.

When Obama took office in January 2009, the Republican party was at its lowest level in quite some time. No leadership, no ideas, no policies.

You could find all sorts of pundits predicting that the GOP would be wallowing in the wilderness of opposition for many years to come.

But, instead, the Republicans stood together and became the party of No. And whatever you might think of nihilism, as a political strategy it worked.

What voters saw were unchanging unemployment figures and rising government debt. Every time Obama defended the stimulus, Republicans trotted out the costs.

At the same time, Tea Party rallies hammered away at smaller government and less spending, while Republican leaders warned of an economic Armageddon and waited for the polling numbers to change.

What populist?

This Republican strategy is not new, it's been used before. And there is an antidote: It's a stronger message from the White House.

In the 1930s, with the economy mired in a real Depression, Franklin Roosevelt had a message of hope. I know times are tough, he said, but they will get better. Here's my vision, this is what we can do.

In the last months, all the passion and enthusiasm in U.S. politics has shifted to the Tea Party. ((Steven Helber/Associated Press))

For his part, President Obama has spent much of his time recently defending what his administration has already done instead of offering a plan of hope and a blueprint for the future.

Politicians and economists might find comfort in explanations of what has just happened, but voters want to know there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

The Democrats also overestimated Obama's voter appeal. They thought they had a populist on their hands, someone like Bill Clinton. That was a costly misjudgment.

Party strategists clearly hoped as the election date drew near they could send the president onto the hustings and he would woo his supporters back into the tent. Hasn't happened.

Bill Clinton could tell an audience that he felt their pain and they believed him. Obama has failed to make that connection.

Missing message

These past weeks, as the Democrats scramble to make up for lost time, Obama has been paraded at college campuses and minority events.

The crowds are big, but as he reads his teleprompter you don't see anything like the fire of 2008.

What's more, by going out of their way to seek out young people and minority voter, the Democrats are showing what they think of their chances on Tuesday: They are attempting to protect their base.

American elections generally break down to a fairly even split between Democratic and Republican voters (roughly 45 per cent each), with the 10 per cent who are independent being the key to victory.

These days, Democratic efforts to win over those independents seem very half-hearted. The strategy of these last days is to protect the base, limit the losses.

There is a final miscalculation by Obama's team.

The man of the people, of the huge rallies, of the upset win of the presidency, has not managed his handling of the message.

In this fractured, brave new world of journalism, the White House has allowed itself to be pulled in the trivialities of the 24-hour news cycle.

It almost didn't matter what the daily issue was, the president, all too often, became the punching bag and, in the process, failed to get his message out to the public.

The classic example has been his health-care reforms. In a country with millions of people uninsured, with skyrocketing health-care costs and wildly different standards, most voters still have no idea of the benefits that should be coming their way.

It's brave of the president simply to assume that good policy will win voter support; it's foolish to assume this support comes automatically.

Clinton, Reagan and Roosevelt were presidents who didn't leave public opinion to chance. They argued strongly and often for their legislation.

They all suffered midterm defeats but went down with guns blazing and lived to fight another day.

This president has not fired many shots. With his support in Congress surely to suffer and two long years of ultra-partisanship beckoning, 2012 is at risk.