Even more strikingly, after last month’s mass school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Obama has abandoned his long-time timidity on gun control issues and is unveiling this week a sweeping package of constraints. Politically, gun control divides the US almost exactly in half, facing impassioned opposition from the groups who are increasingly Republican core voters, but maintaining solid support from those at the core of Obama’s new coalition, including about two-thirds of both minorities and college-educated white women.
Obama is showing the same instinct by accepting pitched battles with neo-conservative foreign-policy thinkers over his determination to move rapidly toward the exits in Afghanistan, and even more so, his nomination of Hagel, whose questioning of the use of force to reshape the Middle East baits conservatives with the added sting of heresy.
On all of these issues, the president is simply “following his coalition,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, now perhaps the leading liberal group in Washington. “The point I make, in my role [of talking to] the whole coalition, is there’s the possibility of a progressive [electoral] majority that sustains a lot of good things for everybody in it, but we have to deliver [for our voters].”
Obama’s confident advance on these cultural and foreign-policy issues contrasts with a more ambivalent approach on economic ones. After pledging to raise taxes on all families earning at least $250,000, he struck a surprisingly favorable deal for Republicans that set the threshold at $450,000—the top 0.7% of earners—and overall confirmed 82% of the tax cuts passed under his predecessor, George W. Bush. And while the president insists he won’t accept Republican demands for further big cuts in government spending as the price of raising America’s debt ceiling, neither is he proposing significant new spending to accelerate the economic recovery, as liberals yearn for.
All of this reflects Obama’s caution after his own mid-term electoral debacle in 2010, fueled not by social issues (as Clinton’s was) but mostly by a backlash against the way his health-care and stimulus plans expanded government. But it also reflects the reality that populism is often sharper in word than deed for a modern Democratic coalition that relies so much on white upper middle class voters, especially in affluent coastal states. Many of those voters are drawn to cultural and foreign-policy liberalism—but tend to be less enthused about tax policies that reach into their wallet.
Obama’s willingness, however reluctantly, to limit tax increase to such high earners mostly responded to pressure from Republicans. But it also reflected unease from some Democrats in affluent coastal states about nicking families earning $250,000—a group few in the party would have worried about offending 25 years ago. Those cracks inside democratic ranks were as much a sign of the shifting Democratic coalition as his embrace of gay marriage.
A House Divided
In Congress, the politics of this transition aren’t as straightforward as they are for the president. There, Democrats must win a larger share of conservative white voters to hold a majority. That’s both because the two-senator-per-state system exaggerates the influence of small rural states, and also because the coalition of the ascendant tends to cluster around big cities, giving Republicans the edge in more exurban and rural House districts. Also, minorities and young people are a lot less likely to vote in mid-term elections. That will make the Democrats more vulnerable in 2014 if Obama’s second-term social agenda prompts a conservative backlash, raising the specter of a repeat of the Republican landslide of 1994.
On the other hand, things can’t get that much worse for the Democrats. They have already lost almost all of the House seats where those conservative voters predominate. Democrats now hold just 31 of the 143 House seats where whites represent at least 80 percent of the voting-age population, and to regain a majority in the lower chamber they almost certainly have to focus on more diverse urban and suburban seats where culturally liberal positions have more support. In the Senate, Democrats must hold several seats in Republican-leaning states in 2014 to maintain control; but overall the Democratic majority now revolves around the party’s overwhelming advantage in what I’ve called “the blue wall”—the left-leaning 18 states that have voted Democratic in at least the past six consecutive presidential elections.
Democrats will always be more of a coalition party than the more ideologically and racially homogenous Republicans. But Obama’s emerging second-term course both reflects and accelerates the forces that are moving Democrats too toward greater cohesion—and intensifying the searing polarization of American politics.