The relationship between President Obama and his progressive base—epitomized by CNBC town-hall participant Velma “still waiting for change” Hart—is less than ideal as the election approaches. And while this state of affairs is clearly unnerving to the White House, voters who are actually content with Obama might pose just as much of a threat as those who aren’t.
Two months back, exasperated White House spokesman Robert Gibbs sarcastically quipped that the “professional left” wouldn’t be happy until “we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.” More recently, the administration has taken to scolding its supporters as though they were ungrateful children. At a fund-raiser in New Hampshire, Joe Biden reminded the “base constituency” to “stop whining and get out there and look at the alternatives.” And in a new Rolling Stone article, President Obama is quoted as declaring—“with intensity and passion, repeatedly stabbing the air with his finger”—that Democratic indifference was “inexcusable” considering what GOP rule would look like.
They have a point, but at the same time, they might be barking up the wrong tree: A poll released last week shows that most young voters—the lifeblood of Obama’s campaign in ’08—are actually pretty satisfied with the direction of the country. Unfortunately for the Democrats’ election outlook, a different survey showed that those young voters are also the least likely to vote this year. Satisfaction, it seems, is a much less powerful motivator than anger. (You don’t write a letter to your airline to tell them your flight was pleasant and uneventful; you write to them to complain when your seat was cramped, your luggage went missing, and you had to watch the Katherine Heigl movie in which she wears vibrating underwear.) And Republicans are certainly angry. According to Gallup, 48 percent of Republican voters are “very enthusiastic” about voting this year, compared with only 28 percent of Democrats. The enthusiasm gap is also evident on the airwaves: With liberal megadonors like George Soros and Peter Lewis putting fewer of their millions toward getting Democrats reelected this year, according to the Times, Republican-aligned groups outspent Democrat-aligned groups seven to one on Senate-campaign TV ads last week.
All of which probably means that the administration’s chiding may not be the most effective strategy. When you’re in a hole like the Dems are, why attack your own side? Perhaps instead of trying to scold voters into enthusiasm, a better parenting trick for Obama and Biden would be to offer them an enticing reward. Your child eats his vegetables because he gets ice cream afterward; he cleans his room because you give him an allowance. There’s been a lot of talk from Democratic leaders about what they’ve accomplished over the past two years, and about the unoriginal and retrogressive Republican agenda, but little about how Obama and a Democratic Congress will reward their supporters in 2011 in concrete ways. Energy reform? Immigration reform? Some kind of exciting jobs plan, maybe? Hell, even filibuster reform would probably create some excitement among certain wonkier supporters. And if none of that works, the Ice Cream for Everyone Act of 2011 might not be a terrible idea.