Don't Blame Obama for the Enthusiasm Gap

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, President Barack Obama took the opportunity to express his deep frustration with Democratic voters' lack of enthusiasm. Sounding more like a parent than a president, Obama said it was "inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines" and added that it was "irresponsible" for Democrats not to vote in November.

This wasn't the first time Obama needled his base about its flagging enthusiasm. A few weeks earlier, during a fundraiser for the Connecticut Democratic Party, the president joked that his liberal supporters were "congenitally" more likely to see the "glass as half empty" and didn't appreciate his administration as much as he'd like: "If we get an historic health care bill passed -- oh, well, the public option wasn't there. ... And gosh, we haven't yet brought about world peace." Unsurprisingly, this sparked a wave of reaction from liberal critics like Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald, who noted their dissatisfaction with the administration's policies and priorities. Some critics, like David Sirota, went further in their criticism, arguing that the administration "hasn't fulfilled -- or even tried to fulfill -- its most basic campaign promises" and that this explains the demoralized Democratic base.

True, there is a large enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans. According to Gallup's late September polling, only 28 percent of Democrats are enthusiastic about their party's candidates in the midterm elections, compared with 47 percent of Republicans. This isn't just a blip in the polls; since March, the enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats hasn't dipped below 10 points. But when it comes to explaining that gap, the president's critics have gotten it all wrong. It's not because of the administration's failure to deliver on Obama's campaign promises. Rather, the people who make up the Democratic base have always been less likely to vote in midterm elections than their Republican counterparts.

Take, for example, the behavior of young people and African Americans -- two core demographics for Democrats -- in the most recent midterm election. In 2006, young voters were only 12 percent of the electorate (compared with 18 percent in 2008). Likewise, African Americans were only 10 percent of the electorate (compared with 13 percent in 2008). Moreover, the people who vote for Democrats tend to be under-represented in the most competitive districts; they are more likely to reside in safely Democratic districts, which means that they have no real reason to go to the polls. Indeed, according to Tom Jensen, of Public Policy Polling, there are reasons to believe that Democratic voters are mostly content with the administration, which -- again -- doesn't give them much reason to vote. This is actually the opposite of what Sirota and others claim is causing the enthusiasm gap -- you could even say that Democrats are facing a contentment surplus.

For all the talk about the enthusiasm gap, there's a more interesting story embedded in polling about the Obama administration and its relationship to the Democratic base and progressive activists. When The New York Times' Paul Krugman criticized the Obama administration for its dismissive treatment of its liberal base, he noted that George W. Bush never spoke this way about his supporters. Liberals have also long complained about Obama's willingness to work with conservatives and aim for bipartisan legislation, despite the fact that Republicans were playing for keeps and had no intention of compromising. In June, as liberals were growing frustrated with the lack of a climate bill, Rachel Maddow provided a fantasy Obama speech for her audience, where the president would near unilaterally move legislation through Congress or enact laws by executive order. It's fair to say that for many progressives, the disappointing thing about Obama is that he isn't a liberal George W. Bush -- he won't steamroll through Congress to achieve each of his goals, massaging his base at every opportunity.

The problem is that George W. Bush wasn't that president, either. For all of Bush's bluster, he was more than willing to cut a deal if it meant getting half a loaf. Bush wanted upper-income tax cuts, and to get them, he agreed to give Democrats middle-income tax cuts. The Bush domestic legacy amounts to compromises with Democrats to pass legislation such as No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D, often over objections from right-wing conservatives in the Republican base. And while Bush sent the occasional dog whistle to conservatives, it's not as if he spent his presidency attending to every concern of every conservative group.

Liberals complain that Obama hasn't done enough to fulfill his promises or rally the Democratic base, but it's not clear that Bush was so invested in doing the same for Republicans. Like Obama, Bush made compromises and cut deals in order to navigate a political system that privileges gridlock over movement and entrenched interests over the will of any given elected official. The difference between Bush then and Obama now isn't a willingness to expend political capital to please the base; it's that Bush led a party dominated by the most likely voters -- older white people -- and Obama doesn't.

A more vocal, more partisan Obama would be nice, but it wouldn't actually change much when it comes to midterm turnout. Democratic voters have never been that thrilled about voting in off-year elections, and for all of his political gifts, there isn't much Obama can do to change that.

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