Behind Health Care Push, Dems Panic Over Jobs

Byron York

12/7/2009 2:09:44 PM - Byron York
There's a reason Barack Obama squeezed a hastily arranged "jobs summit," as well as a speech on employment, into a White House schedule dominated by national health care and Afghanistan. You can find it on every page of "The Economy and Politics of 2010," a new survey of voter attitudes circulating among Democrats that, despite its dry title, betrays a sense of dread and horror among party strategists hoping to avoid defeat in next year's midterm elections.

The report is the work of Democracy Corps, the influential polling organization run by Democratic strategists James Carville and Stanley Greenberg. The two men found voters are nearly beside themselves about unemployment, angry about the deficit, pessimistic about the future and in a mood to punish Democrats if things don't get better soon. "This is about the economy, and it's not pretty," they write.

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Most ominous for Democrats is the rise in the number of people who believe the country is on the wrong track. That number grew steadily through the later Bush years, reaching a high of 85 percent just before last November's elections. But with Obama's win, discontent began to subside. By Inauguration Day, the number was 66 percent. By March, it was 56 percent, and by May it was 46 percent. It was a remarkable turnaround, attributable mostly to the new president.

But since then, the turnaround itself has turned around. By July, the wrong-track number had inched up to 50 percent. It was 55 percent in September. Now it's 58 percent.

The reason is unemployment. When Carville and Greenberg asked respondents to list one or two of the most important problems facing the country, 64 percent named jobs — more than twice the level of concern about the deficit and rising healthcare costs, which were named by 29 percent each.

The pollsters found a lot of residual blame for George W. Bush. But they also found that Obama was gradually coming to own the economy. They read voters two statements. One said: "President Obama's economic policies helped avert an even worse crisis, and are laying the foundation for our eventual economic recovery." The other: "President Obama's economic policies have run up a record federal deficit while failing to end the recession or slow the record pace of job losses." Among likely voters, 44 percent agreed with the pro-Obama statement, while 50 percent blamed the president for deficits and job losses. As Bush recedes into history, the blame will only go up if conditions don't improve.

And for the first time since 2002, Carville and Greenberg found that more voters, 45 percent to 42 percent, said Republicans would do a better job handling the economy than Democrats. Just last May, Democrats held a 16-point lead.

Is there anything that could avert Democratic defeats? Something unexpected could always happen, of course. But short of that, Carville and Greenberg found, things would have to improve markedly in the next few months. If unemployment falls below 10 percent and begins a steady decline, and the values of homes and retirement funds start to rise, then Democrats will be OK. But if joblessness remains high, along with the deficit, and the Dow and home values are shaky — that's a brutal scenario for the party in charge. "The punishing of incumbents for negative economic scenarios is most pronounced in Democratic-held seats," Carville and Greenberg write.

The two Democratic strategists take some comfort in the fact that the Republican brand is still unpopular. "This does not yet look like a wave election," they write hopefully, noting that the public doesn't particularly like the GOP. But the report points to a political paradox. After a huge election, the victorious party usually has some time to govern while the loser rebuilds. But this time, Democrats have messed up so fast that the Republicans haven't had time to recover.

All in all, it's a perilous situation for Democrats taking their House and Senate majorities into next year's elections. "The slow recovery and continued job losses, combined with Wall Street bailouts, big bonuses, government takeovers, deficits and possible gridlock, are an ugly brew," Carville and Greenberg write. "For Democrats to reverse the slide in their standing, they need to focus with urgency on jobs." Urgency — that's the key word, and the reason for Obama's "jobs summit" and jobs speech. But voters know Democratic leaders haven't shown that urgency about jobs, and are in fact working 24/7 to pass a national healthcare bill that isn't the country's top priority. What "The Economy and Politics of 2010" shows is that this could be a costly mistake.