There are two very different elections going on.
In 2012, President Obama will have had four years to see if the gamble on big federal outlays into a stimulus package, auto and bank bailouts, and energy investments has paid off. For congressional Democrats up in 2010, however, the long view isn't politically feasible.
At a recent Christian Science Monitor breakfast, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer handed out a tightly spaced one-pager that listed 13 "major initiatives" that have been enacted into law since Obama took office. To be sure, it's an impressive list. But the next election will be a referendum on the economy. Period. If things are looking good, then Democrats can make the case for why it's important to keep their party in charge. If it's not, then all the bragging about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act or Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights won't mean much.
At this point, it's tough to argue that the stimulus has indeed stimulated the economy.
The bottom line is that right now, there's little tangible proof that all the outflows have made much of an impact. In a new Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, about as many people think General Motors will be profitable in five years as think it will be out of business. Meanwhile, just 9 percent in a new McClatchy-Ipsos poll say the economy has turned the corner, with 37 percent expecting it to get worse. The good news, if you want to call it that, is that just four months ago, more than half of voters (54 percent) thought the economy would get worse.
Yet, watching Vice President Joe Biden's awkward attempts to promote the benefits of the stimulus package suggests that congressional Democrats will have their work cut out for them. A greater effort by the White House to get the money out the door could help matters. At this point, however, it's tough to argue that the stimulus has indeed stimulated the economy.
On "Meet the Press" this Sunday, when asked by moderator David Gregory about the rationale behind the administration's estimate of 150,000 jobs created or saved by the stimulus, Biden replied: "There's an econometric model that economists have been using for decades to correlate the economic circumstances of the nation with the creation of jobs.... It's a model the Council of Economic Advisers have used to come up with that 150,000 jobs."
Um, what? You lost me at "econometric model." Just imagine trying to put this into a compelling 30-second commercial.
As the "cheerleader in chief" for stimulus spending, Biden's been touring local communities to give an "all politics is local" pitch for the benefits of the program. But if voters are looking at high unemployment next year, the promise of a $1.7 million replacement bridge over Conodoguinet Creek in Carlisle, Pa., isn't going to make them feel much better.
It's not just Republicans who are complaining about the stimulus package. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, meeting this weekend in Providence, R.I., complained that cities have been shortchanged when it comes to federal stimulus money.
Some congressional Democrats, especially those facing unpalatable votes on health care reform (i.e. raising taxes), will be tempted to vote against the president to avoid being pulled down in 2010. But with their party in control of Congress and the White House, it's going to be really hard for any Democrat to run as a "lone wolf," especially if that member is a freshman without an established identity back home. This isn't to suggest that Democrats should simply follow Obama lockstep. But as we've seen with Republican moderates the last two cycles, if the brand goes bad, sometimes it doesn't matter how you voted.
For now, Obama still has a reservoir of good will built up with the public, and his high approval numbers may help insulate members of his party.
Ultimately, though, watching Democrats these days reminds me of the kids' board game "Don't Break the Ice." In that game, a plastic polar bear was placed on top of an elevated board made up of individual cubes of "ice." The goal of the game was to knock out as many pieces as possible without sending the polar bear crashing to the ground. Sometimes the polar bear came down after one piece was knocked out; sometimes he could still be standing even as his ice world crumbled all around him.
Obama won't necessarily be the polar bear on the floor in 2012. But a lagging economy could take out quite a bit of the Democrats' board.