Just over a year ago, a Democratic congressional leadership staffer who had sat in on a number of closed-door meetings between President Obama and Democratic members of Congress told me something to the effect of, "I know this isn't true and sounds naïve, but listening to the president in these meetings, you'd think he really doesn't care if he gets re-elected or not."
While I acknowledge that someone who gets elected to the U.S. Senate and the presidency is by definition extremely competitive and has a healthy desire to win, the words of that staffer have frequently come back to mind. Most recently, I thought of them following the president's decision to weigh in on the proposal to build a Muslim mosque and cultural center in lower Manhattan, not far from Ground Zero.
Intellectually and substantively, it's clear what the president was trying to say. The proposed facility would be privately funded and built on private property, several blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. If this were to be a YMCA, YWCA or Jewish community center, no one would have said a word. Millions of law-abiding Americans are of the Islamic faith, including several hundred thousand who live in New York, and harbor no sympathy for the Sept. 11 hijackers. They have just as much right to a house of worship or a community center as Christians, Jews, Buddhists or anyone else. It's quite possible I'd feel differently if I had lost a close friend or loved one on 9/11, but the idea of not allowing a place of worship to be built because of the religion it is affiliated with seems un-American.
Having said that, though, it's not hard to imagine the reaction that thousands of Democratic candidates for federal and state office had when they heard the president offer his two cents on a subject that had already proven to be a headache for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Already, every indicator was pointing to a horrible year for Democrats, with the House seemingly likely to tip over into Republican hands and the Senate likely to see reduced Democratic margins. If I were a Democratic candidate on the ballot this year, I suspect I would be livid. Predictably, conservatives and Republicans are having a field day with the issue. No doubt, if the shoe were on the other foot, Democrats would be making hay while Republicans would be seeking a place to hide.
Looking at the Gallup Poll's three-night moving average, after one night of interviewing following the news of the president's remark, his approval rating dropped from 44 percent to 43 percent (Aug. 11-13). With two nights of post-remark interviewing, that number dropped to 42 percent (Aug. 12-14), the lowest of his presidency. His approval has been mired there for the two nights since then and his disapproval is up to 51 percent, a record high.
Whether or not one agrees with everything, or for that matter anything, this president has done, he seems to be guided overwhelmingly by whatever he thinks is the right thing; what he believes is in the long-term best interest of the country, whatever the partisan consequences. It would be hard for even the president's most fervent critics to argue that he simply licks his finger and does whatever is the most politically expedient. No pollster would have recommended many of his actions. And the consequences could be devastating for his party.
At the risk of sounding like an unlicensed psychoanalyst, it seems that President Obama is so supremely self-confident, so self-assured of the righteousness of his positions, that perhaps he believes if he does what he thinks is best and lets the chips fall where they may, everything will eventually work out. And, if it doesn't, well, he'll still think he did the right thing anyway.
To be sure, President Obama believes in himself and what he is doing. Whether the partisan makeup of the Association of Former Members of Congress will change and concur with that admiration over the next few years is debatable. For that matter, it remains to be seen if the president will still be as self-confident when there are a lot more Joe Wilsons in Congress than Alan Graysons.
It was pretty clear that this election was already headed toward a bad place for Democrats before the president ever expressed an opinion on the mosque. They needed no more headaches, and this has just created yet another. Democrats are not going to lose their congressional majorities because of what he said, but his remarks will certainly make the party's challenges even more daunting.