Obama's Challenge: Disaffected Independents

Obama's Challenge: Disaffected Independents
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One year ago, fresh off his re-election, support for President Obama was buoyed by Democratic-leaning independents who offered progressives a political leg up over the GOP. Their numbers helped Democrats leap ahead of Republicans in political identification and persuasion. But 12 months later, Americans are less enthused about the two major political parties, fed up with Congress, and increasingly mistrustful of government.

A senior White House official told reporters Tuesday that Obama’s Democratic base is not at the epicenter of West Wing worries, as the president sets a new course for 2014. Independent voters -- especially those who had leaned toward the Democratic Party and have since retraced their steps -- are seen as the midterm challenge, especially in light of the party’s tenuous prospects in some red states, the official conceded during a wide-ranging conversation.

On Wednesday, the Gallup Organization identified a rising tide of political fence-sitters, reporting that self-described political independents surged in the fourth quarter of 2013 to 46 percent, coinciding with the 16-day partial government shutdown and the administration’s botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s online insurance marketplace.

Gallup said its finding was three points higher than any quarterly measure it has seen among independents since it began telephone surveys, suggesting that “candidates who are less closely aligned to their party or its prevailing doctrine may benefit.”

Even as the economy gradually improved in 2013, self-described Democrats declined in number to the lowest annual average in 25 years, while those identifying as independents rose to the highest level Gallup pollsters encountered in a quarter-century.

Winning favor from voters who distance themselves from the two major parties is by definition a challenge for many congressional candidates. Appealing to such voters can flop when a candidate has a detailed voting record, partisan ties, or carries the stigma of Washington incumbency.

“The increased independence adds a greater level of unpredictability to this year’s congressional midterm elections,” Gallup added.

These fence-straddlers who were once firmly in Obama’s camp in 2008 may prove stubbornly out of reach with some Democratic congressional candidates, especially if the president’s job approval numbers continue to plunge and Washington governance appears deadlocked.

Yet, rather than appeal to the political middle in 2014, Obama is preparing to pitch a policy agenda studded with familiar Democratic Party touchstones, including advocacy for income redistribution in the form of federal benefit programs and higher revenues; regulatory restrictions on U.S. carbon emissions to help curb climate change; and a hike in the federal minimum wage.

Downplayed among Obama’s priorities are any new ideas about trimming domestic spending or steering toward a balanced budget over the next 10 years, including through savings in Social Security and Medicare. Those goals -- popular among independent voters -- send shivers through much of the Democratic Party.

Obama’s aims this year are to make progress using his executive say-so where necessary; in collaboration with Congress if possible; and by effectively managing the laws he signed, including health care and financial reforms, said the White House official who briefed reporters on condition that he not be named or quoted.

Domestically, Obama’s policy blueprint will appear smaller -- not a surprising decision in any president’s second term. Comprehensive immigration reform, which the president’s adviser readily conceded is dependent on the political calculations of House Republicans this year, serves as the most significant policy holdover from 2013.

The transformative achievements of the president’s first four years -- shaped by the country’s economic pains and his own management stumbles --altered the political dynamics of his second term. The public’s unease about the Affordable Care Act could end some Democrats’ political careers in November.

The president conceded the government’s health insurance rollout was politically damaging, but his advisers told reporters this week that the worst is behind the administration. Predictions will prove wrong that consumers might revolt in 2014 if they lose their doctors, or insurers might pull out of the exchanges if new customers are fewer than projected, the senior official said.

Obama’s team was cheered that Republicans, after insurance coverage went into effect Jan. 1, shifted their long-running call for “repeal” to “repairs” in the law. To change it, Republicans would have to coalesce around an appealing alternative. Obama’s advisers doubt consumers will see such a plan from the GOP.

The administration’s own hastily announced enrollment fixes in November and December, plus a mop-up PR blitz in December and January, were in part intended to alleviate the political anxieties of vulnerable Democratic candidates, especially in the Senate, the White House official said.

Obama will continue to raise money for Democratic candidates this year, but primarily through the Democratic National Committee, the House and Senate party committees, and the Democratic Governors Association, the official added. In some red-state races, Democrats will gratefully tap the money Obama pulls in (funneled through party channels), but some will not want to campaign with him. The president will stump for candidates in the fall, the official added, including for gubernatorial candidates in states such as Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

A lesson the White House learned in the wake of the 2010 midterms, he added, was that as consequential as the loss of the House was for the president and Democrats, losses in governors’ races and the resulting impact on redistricting also proved consequential for the country.

At the moment, 31 percent of Americans, on average, identify as Democrats, while Republican identification has fallen to its lowest level, 25 percent, since Gallup began conducting interviews by telephone in 1988. Both parties appear determined to draw stark contrasts this year, not compromises. But in at least one policy arena -- national security and surveillance -- the bright lines that divide Republican policies and Obama’s approach are blurred.

Disclosures about the government’s once-secret surveillance programs, staunchly defended by the president in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, have eroded public trust in government. Obama chafes at public accusations his administration adopted controversial surveillance practices favored by the Bush administration, and then secretly expanded the techniques. He argues there is judicial review and congressional scrutiny of all classified programs aimed at counterterrorism.

Independent voters, in particular, frown on the administration’s surveillance policies, and the Snowden disclosures prompted a swing of opinion across parties compared with surveys conducted a few years before, according to pollsters. In July, 49 percent of independent voters said surveillance had gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties, according to a Quinnipiac survey of more than 2,000 registered voters. That compared with 46 percent of Republicans who said the programs had not gone far enough. Democrats were nearly evenly split about the programs' impact.

Also in July, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 52 percent of independents believed the administration had gone too far in restricting civil liberties, compared with 43 percent of Republicans and 42 percent of Democrats.

Six months later, the president is trying to rebuild some of the lost trust and public confidence in government. He’ll use a speech before the Jan. 28 State of the Union address (an event likely to occur next week) to outline how he hopes to change National Security Agency surveillance programs. He’ll make some adjustments on his own, reject some recommendations he’s received, and appeal to Congress for additional modifications, his aides say.

Rather than eliminate or curtail major intelligence programs, Obama is expected to pledge more transparency, plus some outside advocacy in the process. He plans to meet Thursday with key lawmakers to seek their input.

Leading up to his announcements, and echoing public comments by several current and former government defenders of the NSA’s phone and email metadata-collection effort, Obama has argued the phone surveillance program could have thwarted the 9/11 attacks. This assertion, invoking the most horrific attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor, is considered controversial. It may capture the public imagination, but if used in a presidential speech may set off a spate of disputes. New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright offered one skeptical dissection this week.

Asked for an example Obama could tap to ease Americans’ doubts about stockpiling their private phone records -- especially after an Obama-appointed review panel found no evidence the NSA metadata program stopped a terrorist attack -- the White House official told reporters the president believed the 9/11 tragedy was such an example. He said the government, if it had possessed the metadata phone collection program a dozen years ago, could have tied a cellphone used by a 9/11 plotter in Germany to a 9/11 accomplice contacted in San Diego and saved lives.

He said Obama previously explained the 9/11 example to journalist Charlie Rose. “The one thing people should understand about all these programs, though, is they have disrupted plots, not just here in the States, but overseas, as well,” the president told Rose during a June 16 interview at the White House soon after Snowden revealed NSA secrets.

In that PBS appearance, however, Obama did not reference 9/11. He pointed to Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi, who aspired to detonate explosives in the New York subway system in 2009. The administration now maintains that Zazi was captured because of the NSA’s Internet surveillance program, revealed by Snowden by its code name, Prism.

“We might have caught him some other way,” Obama told Rose. “We might have disrupted it because a New York cop saw he was suspicious. Maybe he turned out to be incompetent, and the bomb didn’t go off. But at the margins, we are increasing our chances of preventing a tragedy like that through these programs.”

Trust the government, Obama will argue. That could prove a tough sell.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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