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By Jay Cost

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It's Time for Moderate House Democrats to Stand Up to Obama

According to Gallup, Barack Obama entered the presidency with a net approval rating (i.e. percent approve minus percent disapprove) of 56%. This past weekend, he was at just +1%. No newly elected President has fallen so far so fast since polling began. Only Bill Clinton - in his difficult first year in office - came close.

Some pundits have an overly-reductionist take on Obama's fast-declining numbers, arguing that the precipitous drop is entirely due to the stagnant economy. They like to draw a comparison to Ronald Reagan, whose numbers fell quickly as he dealt with a recession early in his term. No doubt some of Obama's decline is related to the recession, but the 44th President - unlike the 40th - was elected when the economy was already contracting. This gives Obama political cover that Reagan did not have. Just 7% of Americans, according to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, blame Obama for the recession.

If it's more than the economy, what else is it? Health care is a strong contender. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day of last year, Obama's net job approval rating in the RCP average declined by 63%. This was the period when House Democrats were beginning to divide openly over their reform proposals, and when the town hall protests started. As the debate has dragged on, his net approval has inched closer and closer to zero. Today, the country is essentially split in half over his tenure.

That split is not random. It breaks down along the typical cleavages. Obama is strong in the East; weak in the South. Young people like him; seniors do not. Democrats stand with him; Republicans and Independents don't. Blacks approve; whites do not. Single people support him; married people don't.

Yet the Democratic Party controls Congress today because in the last two election cycles it healed these divisions, at least partially. In 2008, House Democrats split the South. They won voters young and old. They won Independents. They held their own with whites. They split married voters. This is why they have a majority in the 110th House of Representatives.

If the current trends in public opinion continue, they will lose that majority because of President Obama's divisiveness. We have seen hints of things to come with GOP victories in Virginia, New Jersey, and most recently Massachusetts - as the difference-making voters for the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 turned to the Grand Old Party.

Either Mr. Obama and his advisors are blind to this, or they don't care, or both. I think it's both; call it willful blindness, a self-serving belief that 2008 was indeed a liberal realignment, and that the numbers will eventually reflect it. Regardless, House Democrats should know that the voters who have made them a majority party in recent cycles strongly oppose this health care bill; they have turned against President Obama; and they will eventually turn against them if they go along with the President. Moderates from the South and Midwest will be the first to go down to defeat as the party shrinks from a majority to a minority.

Yet such crassly selfish political considerations are not at the core of the debate moderate Democrats should be having. The real question is this: what is the Democratic Party all about? As I have argued before, the substance of this bill - with a mandate enforced by the Internal Revenue Service that all citizens buy a product from a private company as part of the terms of public citizenship - is antithetical to the historical spirit of the party.

But it's not just the substance. It's the process. The ever-obliging mainstream media have helpfully reduced the appropriateness of reconciliation to a merely legislative question, thus obscuring the bigger political reality: the Democrats must use reconciliation to pass health care because they no longer have a filibuster-proof majority; they no longer have a filibuster-proof majority in part because of health care. Their chosen strategy may pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian, but it suggests a blatant disregard for public opinion.

This is par for the course for the 44th President, who has made pretty clear his belief that, when he and the people disagree, the people must be in error. Democratic primary voters in small town Pennsylvania opposed him not because he was inexperienced, you see, but because their bitterness made them provincial. Now, Americans who don't support this bill simply don't understand it. They'll see things better after the Congress passes it.

Such arrogance makes for bad politics because it's un-democratic. Yet it's also un-Democratic. It's not unreasonable to expect the party of the people to respect the judgment of the people, especially on an issue that is so important and that has attracted so much attention. The public is as well informed about the health care debate as they ever are about anything. One would hope that the Democratic Party would acknowledge and respect this fact.

Progressives at liberal opinion journals and in the D.C. press corps have had trouble with this idea - and have ironically taken to employing fallacies of composition to suggest that public opposition is irrational. The people like the various elements of the bill, so the fact that they dislike the whole thing is a sign that they're not thinking clearly. If this argument was valid - if the whole was merely the sum of its parts - the Washington Redskins, an organization that likes to lure the best players from other teams rather than build from the ground up, would stand at the top of the National Football League.

The Democratic Party is broader than its progressive intellectuals and media cheerleaders. It has the majority not just because of San Francisco, California - but also Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Zanesville, Ohio. Those places voted Democratic in the 2008 House elections. Some progressives, especially in the blogosphere, see that as a problem - the "ConservaDems" they elect hold up true progress. But it's historically the greatest strength of the Democratic Party, whose appeal has long been much broader than the GOP's.

House Democrats should bear this in mind as they consider the current reforms. This bill would signal not just a major change in health care, but also in the Democratic Party itself. The end result will be a smaller, more narrowly liberal party that is less trusted by the mass public to respect its collective judgment. The party will keep San Francisco and The New Republic, but sooner or later they'll lose Murfreesboro and Zanesville.

Mr. Obama has indicated that he is all right with this. But in our system of separated powers, his opinion is insufficient. Ultimately, the decision rests with Southern and Midwestern House Democrats. They must make the final choice. They can vote with the President on a bill whose substance and process reflect little of the grandest traditions of the Democratic Party. Or they can stand up to him, and tell him that they have had enough of his condescending attitude and strong-arm tactics.

What moderate House Democrats should not do is assume that, if they vote with him on this one, President Obama will stop here. This President talked during the campaign about building a broad consensus for change. Yet when push comes to shove, he cares much more about change than consensus. He plans to tackle immigration reform, and there's no doubt he's still eyeing cap-and-trade. He has promised the Congressional Progressive Caucus that they can revisit health care later. If their constituents ultimately disapprove, moderate House Democrats shouldn't expect Barack Obama to give a damn. That's not his style. He likes to give lip service to consensus - but when you read the fine print, he inevitably defines any divergent viewpoints as out-of-bounds. He did it on the stimulus. He's doing it on health care. If moderate House Democrats don't stand up to him now, he'll do it on cap-and-trade, immigration reform, and who knows what else. Sooner or later, their constituents will elect representatives who will stand up to the President.

And those new representatives will probably be Republicans.

Follow me now on Twitter, and be sure to check out my health care whip count, updated as new information comes in.

-Jay Cost