Image: Barack Obama,
Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP
President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Robins Center Arena at the University of Richmond on Friday, Sept., 9 in Richmond, Va.
updated 9/15/2011 10:56:01 AM ET 2011-09-15T14:56:01

Crushing defeats for the Democratic party in two special congressional elections on Tuesday, an economy that’s showing no signs of revival, and Obama’s declining approval ratings have become too much to defend, even for some of the party’s most zealous spin doctors. The president’s support is eroding across the board, and the coalition of liberals, minorities, young people, and labor that helped elect him in 2008 is fraying badly.

Obama brand takes a hit

“Democrats should be very nervous," said Bill Burton, a former White House spokesman and senior strategist at Priorities USA, which is raising millions of dollars for the 2012 election. “They need to put on their war paint and get ready for what is going to be a very difficult battle. Unless activists really engage and recognize the stakes of this fight, it’s going to be impossible for the president to win."

Though Burton strongly cautioned against reading too much into any one Democratic setback, he didn’t discount the signs of Obama discontent:

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—A New York City district held by Democrats since 1923 fell to the GOP in a special election on Tuesday. A Republican political novice, businessman Bob Turner, framed the vote in the heavily Jewish district as a referendum on President Obama, raising questions about the level of his support with a key Democratic constituency.

Story: GOP upset win in N.Y. portends challenge for Obama

—Republican Mark Amodei on Tuesday cruised into a congressional seat in the battleground state of Nevada in a special election Democrats had hoped would expose a backlash against the GOP over its proposed Medicare overhaul. It didn’t.

—The Republican National Committee raised more than $8 million last month, marking its best August in a nonelection year and crushing the $5.5 million haul by its Democratic counterpart—even after President Obama’s birthday fundraising drive.

In the wake of economic reports showing job creation at a standstill, the U.S. Census reported on Tuesday that one in six Americans are living in poverty. Poverty last year surged to its highest level since 1993.

Story: Obama touts jobs bill benefits for small business

—Obama’s approval rating in California, traditionally a true-blue state for Democrats, slipped to 46 percent in a new Field Poll. The latest Bloomberg Poll found most Americans don’t believe the president’s $447 billion jobs plan will lower the unemployment rate.

“The mine hasn’t collapsed, but the loss in New York is definitely a dead canary,’’ said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga, president of an independent liberal group called Patriot Majority. “It is going to be a very, very difficult election, and it is time to wake up and be bold ... We have to face reality and the fact of how unhappy and scared people are.’’

Obama’s advisers are contemptuous of the suggestion that the bottom is falling out from under the president. In their view, his approval ratings, while down slightly, reflect a Democratic base that is strong.

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The White House’s perspective might be summed up this way: With unemployment over 9 percent for virtually the entirety of the president’s term, he should be doing much worse. Independents may not be embracing the president’s economic agenda, but they actively reject Republican ideas. And Republicans in Congress continue to poll worse than the Democratic administration.

In some battleground state polls and national polls, Obama comes out ahead of the two leading contenders for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.

Video: President gets all-time-low approval rating (on this page)

“It would be an understatement to say that calling the next election based on a 60,000-vote turnout in a [New York] congressional race 14 months before election day is ill-advised,' " said Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Obama’s reelection bid.  “There’s no doubt that our organization will be unrivaled. We never allowed it to fade away and we’re building it every day as the Republicans are off courting the tea party vote.’’

Story: Democrats fear New York, Nevada losses

To be sure, the special elections and other Democratic setbacks are snapshots in time, not necessarily harbingers of the future. But they indicate that President Obama will lose in 2012 unless he is able to reverse his poll rating’s downward spiral.  He carried New York’s 9th District in 2008 with 55 percent—a threshold met by very few of the seats captured in Republican wave in 2010.

It’s striking that a groundbreaking Democratic nominee who expanded the national battleground to include previously impenetrable states like Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia is now polling at 43 percent in such a Democratic stronghold. Obama’s defensive posture also bodes poorly for Democratic senators in states like Florida, Nebraska, Montana, and Missouri that are pivotal for the party to maintain its slim majority.

Former SEIU president Andy Stern said that even an enthusiastic get-out-the-vote effort by organized labor could not have overcome the “continued level of incredible frustration at everyone in Washington, indiscriminate” evident in the results in New York, a dynamic he said held ominous warnings for Obama next year.

The article, "Obama Allies: Time to Wake Up" first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Obama: ‘We can’t sit back and squabble’

  1. Closed captioning of: Obama: ‘We can’t sit back and squabble’

    >>> good evening. this is not what you want when you're trying to launch a recovery. today, the bank of america announced a plan to slash 30,000 american jobs and reportedly close a lot of branches in cities and across the countryside all over this country. the plan is designed to make sure bank of america survives and stays healthy, but it's the largest single u.s. lay-off of the year. at the same time, the president was out there again today selling his new jobs plan. he's fighting his own downward numbers and questions about becoming a one-term president. it's what we talked about in our exclusive conversation with the president at the white house at a critical time for him and this country.

    >> occurs to me we are sitting 30 feet from harry truman 's official white house portrait. members of your base are asking when are you going to get your harry truman on?

    >> well, look, harry truman ran against a do-nothing congress. this congress hasn't done much so far, but it still has an opportunity over the next several months to do something that helps the american people . and i want to give them a chance. i'm pleased to see that so far speaker boehner and some of the other republican leadership have said that some of the proposals i put forward deserve serious consideration. and i'm going to be open to any ideas they have in addition to how we are going to grow this economy, but what is not an option is doing nothing.

    >> did you come to a decision that what the country needs is in large part a good old public works bill?

    >> what i came to the conclusion is that given all the headwinds we have been seeing this year -- high gas prices as a result of the arab spring, the tsunami in japan which disrupted supply lines but probably most significantly what's been happening in europe and the turmoil that's taken place there, financial markets that are affecting what businesses are making decisions about here in the united states , that we need a boost. the plan that i put forward -- the american jobs act -- puts construction workers back to work, puts teachers back to work, puts our veterans who are coming home looking for a job back to work, the long-term unemployed back to work. it provides tax breaks for small businesses when they hire new employees. so this package, it's estimated, would help the economy grow by as much as an additional 2%. that could mean an additional 2 million jobs.

    >> all of this, of course, is if you get what you want in a highly toxic atmosphere and it sure looked to me from the outside like you went into the debt ceiling fight thinking, surely they will do the statesman-like thing, surely they won't go there. and it seemed to me as if speaker boehner was coming to you saying, look, if it were up to me, we would do this, but i've got this membership problem.

    >> right.

    >> and they went there. now that marks our politics.

    >> well, there is no doubt that we went to the brink in a way that was unacceptable. we are in an economic crisis and the fact that we made it worse here in washington is inexcusable. we can't sit back and squabble while the country is suffering.

    >> your approval, 44%. on your handling of the economy, 37%. voters now prefer a generic, as-yet-unnamed republican. and most americans now say that you are in something that you can't likely recover from. do you accept those numbers? do you have to wear those?

    >> well, look, you know, one of the things that i learned very early on is not to worry about polls. if i was worrying about polls i wouldn't be sitting here interviewing with you. as i recall when i was running for president, i was down about 30 points around this time in my first run for presidency. you know, the truth of the matter is the american people have gone through the worst economic crisis since the great depression. and they are understandably impatient and i can say to them, look, all the actions we have taken have been the right actions. if we hadn't taken those actions, things would be much worse, but the bottom line is unemployment is still at 9%. and there are still a lot of folks hurting out there. my job as president of the united states is not to worry about my job. my task is to worry about their job and their economic situation.

    >> you see what's out there. you see what's being said about you. what do you say to those americans who voted for that man on the poster that said "hope"?

    >> well, what i would say is that for the last two and a half to three years, we have been working tirelessly and nonstop to deal with the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes. ultimately, i'm going to be judged by, you know, whether we have stayed focused on making sure that this economy is moving in the right direction. and like the captain of a ship in a storm, you know, when the ship is rocking and people are getting hurt, they're not going to be happy, no matter how good the captain's doing. now, my hope is that when we are on the other side of it, folks will look back and say, you know, he wasn't a bad captain of the ship. what i tell everybody i meet whether they voted for me or they didn't is this country always gets through these storms. we always right the ship. and we will this time as well.

    >> part of our conversation with the president at the white house . there is more on our website. today, by the way, the administration announced how they plan to pay for his new jobs plan through a series of previously proposed tax hikes that have all been raised by the white house in the past and rejected by republicans.


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