Apocalypse Not: Are the Dems Really Facing Doom?

The capital is crawling with prophets of doom for the Democrats, but they may be overstating the case

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Illustration by Stephen Kroninger for TIME; Obama: Ethan Miller / Getty Images

In the midst of the mid-July doldrums, Barack Obama suddenly was beset by a zeitgeist tornado blowing in — hard — from the media and the opposition. A Washington Post headline blared that "6 in 10 Americans Lack Faith in Obama." The Drudge Report, rippling off the poll, screamed, "CREDIBILITY CRISIS." The New York Times asked 15 brilliant people to give the sinking Prez advice on its op-ed page. Charles Krauthammer, the neoconservative columnist, argued that the worst part of Obama's failure was that he was succeeding — he was reversing Reaganism, with legislation like the health care and financial-reform bills. The President's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, noted, accurately, that the Democratic Party might lose the House of Representatives in the coming elections. This droplet of candor rendered the Speaker of said House, Nancy Pelosi, inexplicably apoplectic. Various commentators began to speculate that it was possible that the Democrats could lose the Senate as well.

Yikes. With all the hyperventilation, it was easy to gain the impression that something was actually happening. In truth, not much was. Take that Washington Post poll, for example. It was true that 57% of those surveyed had only some or no faith in the President's ability to solve the country's problems. But that was pretty good compared with, well, everyone else in town: 67% lacked faith in the congressional Democrats, and a mere 72% felt that way about the Republicans. By the way, the lack of faith in the President's ability to fix the economy seems entirely rational to me: another short-term stimulus burst is needed, and so are long-term deficit-reduction fixes, but both seem beyond the Administration's capability right now. On the other hand — in the midst of a fierce recession and the oil spill and a massive Republican smear campaign — Obama's approval rating stood at a buoyant 50%, which was slightly higher than most other polls had him, all of which were higher than Ronald Reagan's at a similar point in his presidency.

It was certainly true that the Democrats were poised to take a shellacking in the coming elections. That's business as usual; congressional campaigns almost always give heartburn to sitting Presidents. But the intensity of the reflux remains a mystery. The Lost Senate scenario depended on the Democrats' dropping every last race imaginable — and even as the dire prognostications were being propounded, Harry Reid was rising from the dead in his Nevada Senate race (on the strength of the weird Tea offered by his Republican challenger), a pattern that could repeat itself in other states where the Republicans have settled on test-tube libertarians who want to privatize old-age entitlements, believe that people receiving unemployment insurance are lazy and still have doubts about the legality of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Even on the House side, the picture wasn't entirely clear. A composite index of polls had the Republicans slightly ahead in a generic ballot (albeit with a far more enthusiastic potential electorate). But in the tawdry area of fundraising, a very precise leading indicator of success in congressional races, Democrats were thrilled by the fact that many of their vulnerable candidates — Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, Chris Carney in Pennsylvania, for example — had significantly outraised their Republican opponents. Here, too, the Republicans were evening the odds by offering strange brews of Tea against Democrats who tended to be solid, moderate Blue Dog sorts. (Several polls had the Tea Party's initial, mildly favorable public impression turning sour.)

This is not to say the President doesn't have problems. The public is distressed by the recession and confused by Obama's solutions. The financial-reform bill that the President signed on July 21 may tourniquet some of Wall Street's excesses, but who could explain it? The big banks remain intact, with only a byzantine regulatory process standing between them and another bailout. There is no transaction tax to discourage the casino gambling in financial derivatives that fueled the crash. Indeed, the most accessible news from the bill is that one unpopular big (Wall Street) was impinged upon by another (government regulators), who don't have a fabulous track record when it comes to being outsmarted by the Madoffs of this world. The other headline was that the bill funds 68 government studies, all of which — I'm sure — will be carefully read and implemented.

This is a "solution" that doesn't connect with the "problem" perceived by the electorate, which is the government's affinity for bailouts. "The big guys got taken care of," says Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, one of 53 congressional Democrats who lost their seats in the 1994 Republican tsunami, "and everyone else is getting hammered. There is enormous frustration about that, and people tend to take it out on the party in power."

And so it will surely be this year, though perhaps not the apocalypse the zeitgeist warriors are predicting.