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Amid setbacks, Obama allies need to 'wake up'

National Journal: Former White House Spokesman  Bill Burton says Democrats "need to put on their war paint and get ready for what is going to be a very difficult battle."
/ Source: National Journal

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.

“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:

—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.

—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.

—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.

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.

“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.’’

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.