On Feb. 27, 1968, soon after his visit to Vietnam to report on the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite took to the nation’s airwaves to share his personal views on the conflict. “To say that we are mired in stalemate,” America’s foremost anchorman said, “seems the only realistic if unsatisfactory conclusion.”
And with that, the Johnson Administration lost Cronkite – and not long after that, the court of public opinion.
Just as, with this column, the Obama Administration may have lost Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist.
Not that Ms. Dowd’s sometimes-acid pen is any match for Mr. Cronkite’s microphone, but she has picked up on a bad vibe: Democrats are in a state of panic as the midterm election approaches, and the Democratic president has done little to instill confidence in the party’s faithful. “With the health care sign-up period coming to an end this month,” Dowd writes, “Democrats in Congress are looking over at the White House and realizing that the president is not only incapable of saving them, but he looks like a big anchor tied around their necks.”
Not that his fellow partisans will go on the record trashing their party’s leader, but there is evidence of a rift wider than the two miles separating the Democratic White House and the Democratic-controlled United States Senate. As evidence: the nomination fight over Dr. Vivek Murthy, the President’s choice to serve as U.S. surgeon general. Republicans have steadfastly opposed, due in no small part to the National Rifle Association’s assertion that the good doctor is a bad anti-gun activist. The problem for Mr. Obama: as many as 10 Democrats seem ready to vote against the White House’s pick. When added to the earlier rejection of Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division – seven Democrats going against the President’s wishes on that occasion – it would seem that lame duck is on the menu in the “world’s most deliberative body”.
There are at least two other factors that may be contributing to why President is fighting two cold wars – Putin abroad, Senate Democrats at home.
For starters, consider President Obama’s relationship with his former colleagues. The President entered the Senate in January 2005. However, his brief tenure suggests he was more show horse than workhorse. Courting the media and raising money for other candidates, two trademarks of Obama’s four years on Capitol Hill, also are trademarks of a senator looking to climb the next rung. Democratic senators weren’t particularly close to Mr. Obama while he was the junior senator from Illinois.
Nor has the President mounted a charm offensive since leaving the chamber – his aloofness as a political loner and non-glad-hander are well documented (unlike Bill Clinton, Obama is hardly the ESFJ type).
And it’s not like senators fear the Obama wrath as they would have knuckled under and fallen in line after contending with a notorious browbeater like Lyndon Johnson.
The other factor that haunts the Obama presidency: math and momentum.
As far as the U.S. Senate races are concerned (Republicans needing six seats to achieve a 51-seat majority in 2015), the map is growing wider and redder in terms of Democrats in trouble and the GOP looking at pick-ups. The latest Senate Democrat in peril: New Hampshire’s Jean Shaheen, who now has to fend off former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown.
In the bigger picture, Democrats may not be as fortunate.
Of the 36 Senate seats up for grabs in 2014, 16 are seen as competitive. However, 14 currently belong to Democrats versus only two that are Republican (Georgia and Kentucky). Just a few months ago, the list would not have been 14-deep – maybe not even 10-deep. But a President with soft approval ratings and a hard-luck health plan have changed the numerology. Momentum, for now, is with the Republicans.
The trouble with having to defend 14 at-risk Senate seats? Obviously, it makes a plus-six gain realistic for Republicans, even if they drop a seat or two in the South. But it also presents a mechanical problem for the party-in-power – specifically, as money and manpower are finite resources, the question of which Democratic candidates get help and which ones are left to fend for themselves as Election Day approaches.
In this regard, 2014 is the opposite of 2012. Then, the map favored President Obama in that he led down the stretch in key battleground states. Put another way, Obama had room for error that his Republican opponent didn’t. He collected 332 electoral votes, 62 more than needed – meaning: the President could have lost Florida, Ohio and Virginia (a combined 60 electoral votes) and still have kept his day job. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, had to run the table in the nation’s swing states to have any hope of reaching the magical 270 electoral votes.
For Republicans, regaining the Senate isn’t the uphill climb it was a year ago. And in this election, Senate Democrats won’t be the ones running the table – not in an off-year election when the tables have been turned in all sorts of ways.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen