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Obama Tries to Rally Democrats for November Elections

President Barack Obama (file photo)

President Barack Obama (file photo)

In a little more than three months, U.S. voters will go to the polls in congressional midterm elections that could have a major impact on President Barack Obama's political agenda. Opposition Republicans are energized by this year's elections and by predictions by political experts that they could gain enough seats to regain control of one or both houses of Congress. Democrats seem less enthusiastic about the elections.

It is shaping up to be a tough year to be a Democrat. President Obama's public opinion ratings continue to slide, and most political experts are predicting significant Republican gains in November in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Many liberal Democrats are also frustrated that their party's majorities in both houses of Congress have not done more to fully implement the Obama agenda.

Liberals attending the recent Netroots Nation convention in Las Vegas complained that moderate and conservative Democrats in Congress have forced too many compromises on issues like health care and climate change, and have acted as a kind of political brake on the president's ambitious agenda for change.

Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota acknowledged the frustrations during a speech to the Netroots convention.

"But I agree we have not won nearly enough, and I know that progressives are frustrated - not just because we have not gotten as far as we thought we would, but because it sometimes feels like not everybody in our party is pushing forward at the same pace," said Al Franken. "We have a lot of Democratic votes in Congress, and that is a good thing. But we do not have enough progressive votes to pass the agenda that you and I want."

President Obama addressed the group in a videotaped message. Although he acknowledged liberal frustrations, he urged the activists to work hard to re-elect Democrats in November.

"Still, change has not come fast enough for too many Americans," said President Obama. "I know that. It has not come fast enough for me either. And I know it has not come fast enough for many of you who fought so hard during the election."

In addition to the political climate, Democrats are also fighting history this year. The party that controls the White House usually loses seats during a new president's first midterm election, especially in the 435-member House of Representatives, which faces elections every two years.

Senators are elected to six-year terms and about one-third of the Senate is up for re-election every two years. This year 36 Senate seats are at stake.

Political analysts say a major factor boosting Republican prospects this year is growing concern over government spending and involvement in the economy, which has helped to spark the grassroots conservative and libertarian movement known as the Tea Party.

Michael Barone is a political expert with the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington:

"The rejection of this vast expansion of the size and scope of government by the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional leadership, I think that is the central issue of this campaign cycle," said Michael Barone.

Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections and they expanded their majorities when Mr. Obama won the White House in 2008.

But the political pendulum appears to be swinging back in favor of the Republicans, says presidential expert Bruce Buchanan of the University of Texas.

"On balance, the dynamic looks to be very much anti-incumbent," said Bruce Buchanan. "Most of the predictions that one gets from the specialists in this area suggest that there will be losses for the Democrats in both houses, significant losses possibly."

In addition to shoring up his base among Democratic voters, President Obama appears to be facing a growing challenge in keeping the support of independent voters who were a big part of his election victory two years ago.

Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown says some key voter groups seem to be down on the president this year.

"Males, independents and white voters are all groups that backed President Obama by larger numbers in the election of 2008 than traditionally Democrats have done among those groups," said Peter Brown. "Now in all three groups, he is getting anywhere in the high 30 percent level. That is a pretty substantial drop off - almost 30 percent - and that is really politically where it could be problematic for the president."

Many Democrats are aware of their political vulnerability this year and are doing all they can to urge Democrats to vote in November to counter what is expected to be a strong Republican turnout.

Arizona Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva also spoke to liberal activists at the Netroots Nation convention.

"A midterm defeat will be devastating, and we will be giving back the reins of power in government to the same interests that got us into the mess we are in," said Raul Grijalva.

Republicans have vowed to make significant changes if they win control of one or both houses of Congress. The Republicans need to gain 39 House seats to retake control of that chamber; they need to pickup 10 seats to regain a majority of the Senate.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.