Tuesday, March 20 , 2018, 1:46 am | Fair 49º


Michael Barone: Stimulus, Health Care Put Democrats on Defensive

The policies of President Obama and his party have failed to win over bitter clingers

Like many Democrats in the past 40 years, President Barack Obama has hoped that his association with unpopular liberal positions on cultural issues would be outweighed by pushing economic policies intended to benefit the ordinary person.

Michael Barone
Michael Barone

In his campaign in 2008 and as president in 2009 and 2010, he has hoped that those he characterized to a rich San Francisco Bay area audience as bitterly clinging to guns and God would be won over by programs to stimulate the economy and provide guaranteed health insurance.

At least so far, it hasn’t worked, as witnessed by recent statements by some of the Democrats’ smartest thinkers.

The 2009 stimulus package is so unpopular that Democrats have banned the word from their campaign vocabulary. “I’m not supposed to call it stimulus,” Rep. Barney Frank told The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. “The message experts in Washington have told us that we’re supposed to call it the recovery plan.”

“I’m puzzled by that,” Frank went on. “Most people would rather be stimulated than recover.” The problem is, the economy has neither been stimulated nor has it recovered.

As for the health-care bill, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who has been pondering Democrats’ standing with working-class voters since his perceptive 1980s studies of Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, Mich., has pretty much thrown in the towel.

In a leaked report for Democratic insiders, Greenberg and fellow pollster Celinda Lake concede that “straightforward ‘policy’ defenses fail to be moving voters’ opinions about the law” and “many don’t believe health reform will help the economy.”

“Women in particular,” they add, “are concerned that (the) health law will mean less provider availability — scarcity an issue.” In other words, people have figured out that government rationing may mean less supply for a product for which there is great demand.

Greenberg and Lake recommend using personal stories to highlight the law’s benefits. But “don’t overpromise or ‘spin’ what the law delivers” and don’t “say the law will reduce costs and deficit.”

Do say: “The law is not perfect, but it does good things and helps many people. Now we’ll work to improve it” (emphasis theirs).

This amounts to an abandonment of the claims that the Obama Democrats have been making about the health-care bill they jammed through five months ago. It’s an admission that they messed up when they had supermajorities and will do better when they have fewer votes. It’s a retreat from framing the issue as support vs. oppose to revise vs. repeal.

So much for the economic issues that were going to provide the underpinnings of what Greenberg’s associate James Carville predicted would be 40 years of Democratic Party dominance.

As for cultural clashes, Democrats can claim to have quieted down debates over abortion and other issues that, as Obama said in his 2004 convention speech, unduly divided Blue America and Red America. But others have taken their place, to the Democrats’ discomfort this legislative season. The Obama Justice Department stepped in and got an injunction against Arizona’s law authorizing law enforcement to ask people stopped for other reasons about their immigration status.

Never mind that other states do this routinely without getting sued. The real problem is that about two-thirds of Americans support the Arizona law. Why couldn’t the administration let it go into effect and see if it assisted the efforts they assure us they are making on border and employer enforcement?

Then there was Obama’s iftar celebration comments on the mosque proposed for a site two blocks from the World Trade Center ruins — comments that were taken as an endorsement, until the president proclaimed himself a day later as agnostic on whether it should be built there.

A large majority of Americans, according to a Fox News poll, believe the advocates have a right to place a mosque there, but even more believe they should not do so. Now we have been watching as Democrats from Harry Reid and Howard Dean on down scamper to say they agree with both these views, while Obama endorses only the first.

The Arizona law and the ground zero mosque issues are not likely to be dispositive issues in most congressional races this year. But they are additional baggage for the Obama Democrats who find themselves, as the economy languishes, on the defensive on the issues they thought would win over the bitter clingers.

Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and principal coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him.

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