Democrats are in danger of going down with Obama on terrorism. While there are divides between Democrats and the general electorate on other issues, they do not compare with terrorism’s. The party’s office holders are in a bind: Stay with Obama and their base, or move toward the rest of the country.
Obama is no stranger to controversial policy positions – his handling of the economy, immigration, and Obamacare, among others – that have alienated him from large segments of America. However, he has always been able to rely on his likability to see him through. This is how, despite his often unpopular policies, he won reelection and retains comparatively high personal favorability ratings.
However terrorism is different, both in substance and in the extent of America’s dissatisfaction with Obama’s handling of it.
Terrorism is a viscerally emotional issue. It provokes intense and immediate public reactions. It is an issue with great downside, but little chance of a sudden upside. Even a foiled attack makes us insecure that an attack was so close at-hand.
Finally, terrorism affects our national, as well as our personal, security. As Commander-in-Chief, Obama bears ultimate responsibility on both fronts. Unlike other issues, where he has shifted responsibility to others, he cannot do so here. That means America’s terrorism concerns funnel suddenly, strongly, and straight to him.
Polling data shows the disproportionate effect the issue has had on Obama. According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll (12/4-8, 1,275 adults, with a 3 percent MOE), Obama had a 57 percent disapproval and 34 percent approval rating for his handling of terrorism. In comparison, Obamacare had a 40 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval rating. Obama’s net rating of -23 percent on terrorism is twice Obamacare’s -12 percent net rating.
Obama’s large and general disapproval on terrorism is bad enough for Congressional Democrats. Yet there is an even more unsettling aspect for them. Unlike the rest of America, Democratic voters do not disapprove of Obama’s terrorism record.
In the same CBS News/NY Times poll, only 30 percent of Independents and 7 percent of Republicans approved of Obama’s handling of terrorism, while 59 percent and 90 percent, respectively, disapproved. However 65 percent of Democrats approved, and only 28 percent disapproved, of Obama’s terrorism performance.
This complete perception reversal puts Congressional Democrats in a vise. On the nation’s top and most volatile issue, they are trapped between their base supporters and the rest of America’s electorate.
If a Democratic candidate heeds the rest of America’s heightened concern at Obama’s performance – a political no-brainer in most cases, given the poll results – that candidate risks alienating core party supporters who see no presidential fault at all. If instead that candidate follows the Democratic base, he risks dismissing the decided majority of American voters on a top and volatile concern.
For some Democrats, the squeeze is not so tight, because they represent solid blue states and districts. But as seats sit further from the left end of the political spectrum, the more Members need Independents to win elections and the tighter the vise grows. The pressure peaks at the presidency, where neither side can win without substantial Independent support. And in 2016’s presidential race, terrorism is sure to be a top 2016 issue.
Thus far in his presidency, Obama has proven unsinkable. He has encountered policy discontent without serious personal effect. But terrorism is not just any obstacle.
It is substantively different and has provoked a far greater dissatisfaction with Obama than other issues. Belatedly, Obama has recognized this and has maladroitly tried to shift course. But his efforts have only raised further doubts about his command of this issue – except among Democratic supporters.
Obama and his fellow Democratic officeholders call to mind the Titanic and its passengers. Everyone on that ship believed it was unsinkable. That myth survived only as long as the obstacles it encountered were sufficiently small. Once the Titanic hit a large enough one, the passengers’ misapprehension took many down with it.
Democratic candidates are now facing a twofold question: Is terrorism Obama’s iceberg and how long can they afford to remain aboard?
The author served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000