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For Democrats, Concern About Momentum as Midterms Approach

July 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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With just over three months to go before the midterm elections, some Democrats are worried that a lack of enthusiasm among their supporters could cost them control of the House, the Senate or both. Judy Woodruff reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: some midterm election politics.

With barely 100 days to go, Democrats are concerned about a lack of enthusiasm among their most ardent supporters.

Judy Woodruff reports.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: On that warm night in November 2008, as it became clear Barack Obama was going to the White House, the air was full of promise, especially for progressive voters and their ambitious agenda.

U.S. President BARACK OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a year-and-a-half after the new president took office, some of the interest groups that are the backbone of the Democratic coalition are grappling with the fact that not all the change that was promised has yet come to pass.

Take Latinos. They voted 2-1 for Mr. Obama over Republican John McCain, due in part to his pledge to push for comprehensive immigration reform.

BARACK OBAMA: For eight long years, we have had a president who has made all kinds of promises to Latinos on the campaign trail, but failed to live up to them in the White House. And we can’t afford that anymore. We need a president who isn’t going to walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it wasn’t until this month that he delivered his first major address on immigration reform since becoming president. And it came amid a heated national debate, sparked by a controversial new Arizona law that proponents said was a response to the failure of the federal government to act on the issue.

Democratic Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, says he expected the administration to deal with immigration sooner.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA, D-Ariz.: The effort put in to — to energizing Latino voters, the effort put into getting the endorsements of significant organizations across this country, the commitments made in front of national organizations that deal with immigration reform, all those indicated to me that it was a priority, and that it was going to be a priority not just in the first term, but in the first year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many gay rights advocates say they feel the Obama administration has given short shrift to their issues. As a candidate, Mr. Obama promised to end the military’s ban on letting gays serve openly in the ranks, known as don’t ask, don’t tell.

He also said he would push to repeal the Defense of Marriage act, or DOMA, and expand the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Kerry Eleveld is Washington correspondent for “The Advocate,” a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender news magazine. She credits the president for progress on don’t ask, but says the effort on the other priorities has been lacking.

KERRY ELEVELD, washington correspondent, “The Advocate”: His administration has not pushed on those. Don’t ask, don’t tell is still in the making. We’re going to see where that goes. But — but he has not pushed in any way, other than in some speeches.

If you look at him coming in, what he talked about, what he promised again and again, and also the majorities that he came in with, I would say he is woefully behind at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One core part of the Democratic base that remains a steadfast ally of the administration is organized labor, despite the fact that little progress has been made on one of the group’s top priorities, the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as card check.

BARACK OBAMA: If a majority of workers want a union, they should get a union. It’s that simple.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: Let’s stand up to the business lobby that’s been getting their friends in Washington to block card check. It is time to pass the Employee Free Choice Act in the Senate.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: And I will make it the law of the land when I’m president of the United States of America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The new head of the Service Employees International Union, Mary Kay Henry, acknowledges, all of labor’s priorities are still not met, but says, given what Mr. Obama is up against in Congress, he deserves credit for passing health care reform and signing a Fair Pay Act.

MARY KAY HENRY, president, Service Employees International Union: Here’s what I think. I think that the president has made incredibly wise choices about priorities and focusing in a moment where there is this wall of opposition that has grown more intense over the first 18 months of his presidency. And so we support and back this president, and we want to hold him accountable, and we want to push him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Environmentalists, meanwhile, are withholding judgment on the president, disappointed at the failure by the Senate to pass a clean-energy bill. Implementing an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was one of candidate Obama’s top domestic priorities.

BARACK OBAMA: No business will be allowed to emit any greenhouse gasses for free. Businesses don’t own the sky. The public does. And if we want them to stop polluting it, we have to put a price on all pollution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last year, the House approved a climate bill, which included a cap on carbon emissions, after a fierce lobbying effort by the president.

Gene Karpinski with the League of Conservation Voters is not giving up. He says President Obama needs to take the same steps now to revive the bill in the Senate.

GENE KARPINSKI, president, League of Conservation Voters: Well, the jury’s still out, quite frankly, because, while he’s given a lot of great speeches in the last six months about the need for a comprehensive bill, about needing to put a cap on carbon pollution, we need more of his leadership at this moment to get the job done.

E.J. DIONNE, columnist, The Washington Post: If you are elected as Moses, who is going to take everyone to the promised land, then you’re bound to disappoint people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Washington Post columnist and Brookings Institution scholar E.J. Dionne contends, part of the frustration with the president is that expectations of him were too high, especially given the weak economy.

E.J. DIONNE: If unemployment were at 5 percent, 6 percent, even 7 percent, instead of over 9 percent, the mood would be better. I think the left is no different than the rest of the country in being affected by this overall mood. And then the specific grievances that people have, I think, are magnified because they look around and say, gee, this hasn’t worked as well as we all had hoped it would.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Obama, says he wants Democrats to know, despite the economic crisis, much has been accomplished.

DAVID AXELROD, Senior White House Adviser: So, while we were handling that, we were passing comprehensive health insurance reform that we have been fighting for, for a century. While we were doing that, we passed the credit card bill of rights and other financial reforms.

You know, we have done myriad things that will make a difference, including in the areas — we haven’t completed all our work in all these areas, but we have made progress in all these areas, and we’re going to keep working at that progress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Grijalva makes it clear the disappointment is still tangible.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: We all knew it was going to be contentious. We all knew that it was going to be difficult. We knew health care was going to be difficult. We knew passing the stimulus bill was going to be difficult. We know reforming education is going to be difficult. There is nothing easy about these big issues. So, you know, by avoiding them, it doesn’t make them go away. When you avoid them, they become worse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With the 2010 midterm elections just three-and-a-half months away, many Democrats are worried that Obama voters, turned off by stalled priorities, will stay home. That, coupled with the rise in enthusiasm on the right, could lead to significant Democratic losses in both houses of Congress.

Arizona’s Grijalva says Democrats should be worried.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: I think we have taken the progressive community for granted. I think we have been good soldiers for this administration and for our leadership, consistently taking the tough votes, even when we had to swallow.

And — and I think the progressive community has been appropriately supportive of this president and this — this — majorities in Congress. I — I think they need to be worried, because it’s their base. It’s — it keeps our party erect. And we need them in elections. If they don’t show up, we’re going to have bigger problems than people think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: “The Advocate”‘s Eleveld points out there could also be a financial impact for Democrats.

KERRY ELEVELD: There is a fair amount of money that flows from the LGBT community to the Democratic National Committee, to the president, to Democrats in general. And I think what you’re really wondering is, what’s going to happen to that flow of money? Are people going to start saying, why are we giving to Democrats? Why are we giving to the Democratic National Committee? Why are we giving to the president? Maybe we should just be picking individual candidates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Axelrod asserts, Democrats need to focus on the real choice facing them.

DAVID AXELROD: The Republican Party hasn’t been subtle at all. Congressman Sessions, the leader of the Democratic — of the Republican Campaign Committee, said last weekend that we want to go back to doing exactly what we were doing before this president was elected.

And I don’t think that people want to go back to that. So, rather than arguing whether the president has not achieved every single item on the list of people’s hopes and aspirations, we ought to focus on what we stand to lose in this election. And we have made so much progress in these 18 months that is threatened by what — what’s in front of us.

And I think, rather than making the perfect the enemy of the good and lamenting that, though we have achieved historic things, we haven’t achieved all of the things that we want to achieve, I think people better focus on what’s in front of them. We have got a battle about whether we’re going to continue making progress or whether we’re going to go back. And we need every — all hands on deck to make sure that we’re still moving forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats will argue that, if the base doesn’t turn out in November, it will be even harder to bring about changes that matter to the progressive community.