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Can Obama, Democrats Overcome Economic Issue in 2012?

September 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Democrats lost two House races Tuesday when Republicans won special elections in New York City and Nevada. Gwen Ifill discusses what the results -- and some new polling -- mean with New York One's Errol Louis and NewsHour Political Editor David Chalian.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama and his party faced the fallout today from losing a U.S. House seat they had long held. At the same time, new poll numbers showed growing unhappiness with the way things are going.

BOB TURNER, (R) New York congressman-elect: We have been asked by the people of this district to send a message to Washington. And I hope they hear it loud and clear.


GWEN IFILL: Republican businessman Bob Turner claimed victory last night in the race to fill disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner’s vacant seat.

BOB TURNER: I am telling you, I am the messenger. Heed us. This message will resound for a full year and will resound into 2012. We only hope that our voices are heard and that we can start putting things right again.

GWEN IFILL: Turner defeated Democrat David Weprin by eight points in a Brooklyn-Queens-area district where no Republican had won since the 1920s. Weiner resigned in June after admitting he’d sent lewd photos of himself online.

Democrats got equally bad news in another special election in Nevada, where Republican Mark Amodei beat the Democrat by 22 points.

The chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Pete Sessions, laid the election results at the White House door, saying in a statement: “An unpopular President Obama is now a liability for Democrats nationwide in a 2012 election that is a referendum on his economic policies.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, traveling with the president to North Carolina today, warned against reading too much into the Republican victories. “Special elections are often unique,” he said, “and their outcomes do not tell you very much about future regularly scheduled elections.”

But the loss of the heavily Democratic New York district came at a time when the president’s own numbers are sinking.

A Bloomberg News poll released today found that only 9 percent of Americans feel confident the economy won’t slide back into recession. And nearly three-quarters of the respondents said the country is on the wrong course.

The president has been hoping his new jobs plan will help turn around the economy, and put a brake on that growing pessimism. He pitched his job proposal for the fourth time in a week today. Congress, he insisted, must put aside politics to help come up with a solution.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re in a national emergency. We’ve had — we’ve been grappling with a crisis for three years, and instead of getting folks to rise up above partisanship in a spirit that says we’re all in this together, you got folks who are purposely dividing, purposely thinking just in terms of, how does this play out in terms of this election?

GWEN IFILL: But House Speaker John Boehner read the results of the New York special election differently. Turner’s victory, he said, delivered a strong warning to the Democrats that the president’s party is on the wrong track.

For more on the meaning of last night’s results, we are joined by Errol Louis, host of “Inside City Hall,” a program about New York City and state politics that airs on New York 1, and NewsHour political editor David Chalian.

Errol Louis, what is it about this district that made it flip last night from Democrat to Republican?

ERROL LOUIS, New York 1: Well, it’s an unusual district, Gwen, where President Obama won with 55 percent of the vote, which sounds like a pretty broad margin, but for New York City, it’s actually pretty close.

It’s also a district that has a very large immigrant population from the former Soviet Union. They tend to vote conservatively. There’s also a very large conservative Jewish population, and they vote very conservatively.

So it was always a district that would split its vote. It went for Rudy Giuliani, the Republican, over the decades. It also voted for Gore, and it voted for Obama. So you can never really pin it down. And that tension really sort of came to a head in the special election. The Republicans carried the day.

GWEN IFILL: You know, normally, the — we go back and forth about whether these special elections really have any larger national impact. Were the issues that brought about this outcome local or national?

ERROL LOUIS: It’s very interesting. They really very much ignored local issues. And the Republican and the Democrat both said it was a national race.

So the Democrat said we have got a Tea Party candidate running and if you want to send a message to push back the Tea Party, vote for me. The Republican candidate who prevailed said we have got a problem with President Obama’s policies towards Israel and problems with economic policy and if you want to send a message to Washington, vote for me.

So they both really nationalized the race as best they could. And in retrospect, it wasn’t such a smart strategy for the Democrat.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we have been talking a lot about the economy here in Washington, obviously around the country as well. Was that a drag for the would-be incumbent, for the Democrat?

ERROL LOUIS: Well, I think it was a problem. The Republican candidate, Bob Turner, said he got into all of this purely because, as a retired businessman — I mean, he’s 70 years old, a successful, retired executive who had never held public office — he said he was tired of watching what was going on with the economy, he was tired of seeing policies that he thought would fail, and he wanted to be heard, and he wanted somebody to go out there and, as he put it, light a candle.

And that’s just what he did. So, yes, the economy was very much front and center. And there’s no corner of this country, Gwen, you can go to where people are not concerned about the lack of jobs, the sagging income, the inability to get credit. It’s a longstanding problem, and it’s the problem for the Democratic administration.

GWEN IFILL: And for David Weprin, how much were the problems of the Democratic administration a problem for him?

ERROL LOUIS: Well, they had to be. He ran as a Democrat and said he wanted to support the president and he supports the president’s plan for jobs and he supports the president’s approach to health care.

And all of these are controversial within this district. There are a lot of people who have some grave doubts about it. This was a chance for them to express those doubts. And I don’t think the Democrats really understood exactly how uneasy people are with what’s going on with the president’s policies. That — to that extent, I think this really was a bit of a wakeup call for them.

GWEN IFILL: So, David Chalian, special election, one congressional district or not, are the Democrats freaked out about this on a national basis?

DAVID CHALIAN: They’re expressing concern, and real concern.

We can’t over-interpret. It is one special election — or two, actually. There was a race in Nevada we can get to in a moment as well. But what special elections do, they don’t predict the future. They don’t tell us, oh, this means exactly this will happen a year from now. But they do give us a snapshot of the current political environment.

And right now, when the Democrats went 0-2 last night, the current political environment is really bad for them. And so the psychological impact on the party is actually what Democrats fear the most, right, Democrats in charge of the Democratic National Committee, the campaign committees on the Hill, the Obama re-election campaign.

What they’re hearing from Democrats now is real concern and worry. And that has a way of feeding on itself. And that’s what the Obama team is trying to tamp down.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned Nevada. Now, that was supposed to be — that was a Republican seat, was expected to be — continue as a Republican seat. Why is that a harbinger for the Democrats?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, yes, it was a Republican seat, and although it was pretty close in the last presidential election, because Nevada swung so heavily towards Barack Obama’s direction.

It is a battleground state, though, where the Obama campaign is going to invest a lot of time and resources in trying to keep in its column next year. And specifically in that congressional district, Gwen, Washoe County is a battleground county. Barack Obama won that county by some 12 or 13 points against John McCain in 2008, just this one county that is about where half the vote in that congressional district comes from. The Republican trounced the Democrat there yesterday.

So there are signs there that it’s not just easily written off. And, trust me, the Obama campaign is not writing it off as just a Republican district. There are lessons to be learned there, too.

GWEN IFILL: Now, it’s not just the president’s approval ratings or lack thereof. It’s not just the right track/wrong track polling numbers we all keep track off.

They’re all — there seems to be just a growing sense, a pretty deep-seated sense of pessimism among American voters.

DAVID CHALIAN: Which is why David Weprin’s problem in New York is not so much that his problem is Barack Obama. It’s that his problem is the same problem Barack Obama has, which is exactly this: When you are the Democrat and you’re in charge of the White House, this kind of pessimism is going to weigh on you and your political prospects.

Take — there was a Bloomberg poll out today, Gwen, and we saw that only — that famous Ronald Reagan question, are you better off now than you were four years ago, right? Only 27 percent of the country says they’re better off than when Barack Obama took office. That fundamental question gets at how people are feeling, how the economy is permeating everybody’s political outlook. And that doesn’t bode well for the president at this moment in time.

GWEN IFILL: And certainly not for the future.

So, when the Democrats are looking at this and they say, well, we just get better candidates or we just get a better set of issues, or do they look at this and say there is something fundamentally wrong that we have to tackle here?

DAVID CHALIAN: They look at this understanding how great their challenge is. Yes, they want to recruit the best candidates possible, but what they see here is — and, again, specifically, the Obama re-election campaign, they look at this and they say, listen, we are going to have to bring yet new voters again into the process in 2012 if we are going to be successful, they say.

So they are in a process, a yearlong process, a year-and-a-half-long process, identifying young African-American, Hispanic voters that have not voted before, that have not participated to bring try to them into the fold. That’s one mission, to bring them…

GWEN IFILL: To try to expand their base?

DAVID CHALIAN: That’s right, and to literally alter the electorate.

One of the things Democrats keep saying about New York Nine today is that, well, this electorate doesn’t look like the way the country is going to look. All these Republicans showed up.

Well, the Republicans showed up because that’s where the enthusiasm is right now. And so the enthusiasm gap that we saw exist in the 2010 midterms last year is still here. We see it in the fund-raising right now. The DNC just had a really bad fund-raising month in August. And the RNC had one of their best off-year August fund-raising months.

So all in these different factors, we continue to see the energy and enthusiasm on the Republican side right now. So the president needs to enliven and awaken his base. He needs to reach out to new voters and actually alter shape of the electorate so he has a better chance than right now polls would suggest. And he needs to of course keep that conversation going with the independent voters that have totally defected from him since 2008.

GWEN IFILL: But is his base abandoning him at this point?

DAVID CHALIAN: No. The polls suggest that they are really not. But they are going to need to be energized, right, which is why a lot of Democrats say, hey, if someone like Rick Perry is the nominee, that can go a long way in energizing the Democratic base.

GWEN IFILL: Errol Louis, up in New York, are Democrats, elected officials, people who are absorbing the impact of this election, are they beginning to say, you know, there is something — something smells bad here, something we have to fix in the end, and that involves stiff-arming the president?

ERROL LOUIS: I don’t think so. Actually, Gwen, I think there’s an interpretation here that’s going around that they blew it locally.

And it was really the whole Democratic establishment. I mean, it was stunning how all of the big guns — I mean, our very popular governor was doing robo-calls for David Weprin. Former President Bill Clinton was doing robo-calls for them.

The scene at his headquarters last night looked as if it was a candidates forum for the 2013 mayoral race. Everybody’s who’s even thought about running for mayor was there. All of the major unions were committed. Everybody was involved. And it just didn’t make a difference in a district where there’s a 3-1 registration advantage for Democrats.

So they have got to rethink both their tactics and the underlying philosophy that led to this. But, no, the general thinking is that they didn’t have such a great candidate, that he made some mistakes, and that if it weren’t a special election, their normal machinery would have produced the outcome that they expected, even though they seriously outspent the Republicans.

Now, I think that might be a little shortsighted, but that’s my sense of how they see it here locally.

GWEN IFILL: Errol Louis of New York 1, David Chalian of the NewsHour, thank you both very much.


ERROL LOUIS: Thank you.