Power Play

Mountaineer Mutiny Reveals Obama Predicament

West Virginia Vote Shows Why Barry Can’t Be Bubba

“28 Percent”

-- President Obama’s job-approval rating in West Virginia according to the most recent survey by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling.

Democrats increasingly lament that the current president isn’t more like Bill Clinton – a skillful campaigner who overcame electoral anger and Washington division to easily win a second term.

As President Obama turns gloomier and more combative (see below for a take on why a sitting president would say Americans aren’t better off after his tenure), Clinton nostalgia, much of it stoked by Bubba himself, has come to permeate the Democratic Party.

At last weekend’s festivities in Little Rock, Ark. celebrating the 20th anniversary of the start of Clinton’s 1992 campaign, reporters saw a nostalgia trip that bordered on a rebuke for the sitting president and his lesser political gifts. The Washington Post spotted one button on a former Clinton staffer that read “It’s Still About the [Expletive] Economy, Stupid.” Another wore a T-shirt that read plainly: “I Miss Bill.”

While Democrats hold that Obama is in trouble because he lacks the political chops to face down House Republicans and connect with anxious American voters, Republicans mostly believe that Obama can’t replicate Clinton’s success because he is so ideologically rigid.

Obama could have easily put Republicans on the defensive if he had, as Clinton did, swiped their most popular policies in a move to the middle. Had Obama opted to embrace a stimulative tax overhaul – fewer loopholes and lower rates – or even some level of entitlement reform, it would have put Republicans on the spot. Instead, Obama came up with a third stimulus package at a cost of $450 billion and a proposal for a $2 trillion tax increase on top earners.

Republicans assume that the reason Obama has doubled down on his existing policies of elevated public works spending, job subsidies for state and local government workers and a tax code aimed at reducing the advantages of the wealthy is that he is really such a committed liberal that he can’t bring himself to do anything else. Why else would someone put themselves in this pickle?

While Democrats have a point about the lack of political gifts and Republicans are surely right that Obama tends toward the doctrinaire, Power Play offers another reason for Obama’s ossification: the electoral map.

West Virginia voters head to the polls today in a special election that should have been no trouble for Democrats. While West Virginia has gone Republican in every presidential election since 2000, the state is deeply Democratic on the local level.

The quasi incumbent, Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, took office in January on the heels of Joe Manchin’s Senate victory. Tomblin might be best described as a Clinton Democrat, and probably is farther right than the Big Dog. He is the scion of an influential southern West Virginia political family and had been a powerful force in the state legislature for more than three decades.

His opponent is a political novice – a businessman from the North-Central part of the state who was given approximately zero chance by political pundits and insiders around the state. Even some prominent Republicans lined up behind what was going to be a sure bet for Tomblin, dismissing Bill Maloney as a sacrificial lamb.

But the race has ended up in a dead heat and Maloney seems to have the momentum going into today’s special election. With low turnout expected and conservative voters fired up, Democrats are now seriously worried.

Now it’s not that anyone thought that Obama was going to win West Virginia next year. Given his administration’s efforts to hobble the coal industry, it seems that the Obama team had taken the Mountain State off the table from the very start.

But what Maloney’s viability shows is first, that the president’s unpopularity is doing serious damage to his fellow Democrats. After the losses last month in Nevada and New York congressional elections, seeing a moderate Democrat who has actively distanced himself Obama still slipping beneath the waves of electoral outrage will be worrisome for other red-state Democrats. If you thought Senate Democrats were hostile to the president before, wait until after this election.

But most interesting to Power Play, it shows why Obama has embarked on an unprecedented kind of re-election bid. Obama is playing narrow, base politics with the promise of brutal attacks on his eventual opponent. Obama is also talking down the state of the nation in a bid to lower expectations for his performance. Call it the Anti-Bubba.

But Obama can’t do what Clinton did and that’s because of West Virginia and other like-minded states. There are at least six states that Clinton won in 1996 where Obama will not be competitive in 2012: Arizona, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.

While the Obama team believes it can put Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado in the win column for Democrats this cycle, the six states out of reach represent 49 electoral votes, as many as New York and Pennsylvania combined.

Arizona and Louisiana have their own local political and demographic reasons for rejecting Obama, but the Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia cluster is part of what Michael Barone calls the “Jacksonian Belt.” But Power Play, a political note of Appalachian origins, feels free to call the Hillbilly Firewall.

Populated by cultural conservatives with a strong libertarian ornery streak, voters there have broken hard against Obamism and Maloney’s improbable success is evidence of just how much they mean it.

With the Hillbilly Firewall, Arizona and Louisiana out of reach, Obama has far less room for error. A small map means base politics are more important. Obama has to keep union members marching in Cuyahoga County, Ohio and Hispanic voters inflamed against Republicans in Washoe County, Nev.

Clintonistas may wish that Obama was more like Bill, but as southern governor who ran as a moderate alternative who would break the Democratic march into unconditional liberalism, Clinton had re-election options that Obama, a Hawaiian transplanted to South Chicago who ran on a promise of ideological purity for Democrats, will never have.

Senate Dems Still Running From Obama

"Only a limited number of these $1,000 tickets are available for $250, so I hope you will click this link now and grab them before they're gone."

-- Email from Missouri Democratic consultant David Woodruff quoted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offering “reduced tix” to one of President Obama’s fundraisers there tonight.

When President Obama makes a fundraising swing through St. Louis tonight, he will not be joined by Sen. Claire McCaskill, one of Obama’s earliest and most enthusiastic backers and campaign surrogates in 2008.

The Hill reports today that Senate Democrats are increasingly cross with Obama, who they believe left them out of his current strategy of pushing hard for a third stimulus package and big tax hikes on top earners.

“I think one of the problems with the White House is that it’s been too set apart. It’s been too Chicago-centric, and it needs to get out,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the paper. “Clinton didn’t just talk to four leaders, he picked up the phone and he kind of said, ‘I really need your vote on this.’ ”

This is a repeat of what we saw play out on the president’s national health law, bank regulations and in the string of fiscal bargains with House Republicans. Obama stands aloof from the process and Senate Democrats feel snubbed.

The Hill also reports that Senate leaders were miffed when kept on hold for an economic briefing conference call with National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling who had “a seemingly vague notion of what the call was supposed to be about” when he eventually came on the line.

Senators are the ultimate Washington VIPs and don’t take even small effrontery lightly. A White House led by a former senator that still doesn’t know that after three years is cause for concern for every Democrat.

This week, House Republicans and Senate Democrats will continue picking their way through the minefields of debt reduction, government funding and economic recovery.

With relations strained and confidence lacking between Senate Democrats and the White House, it will be easier for House Republican leaders to convince Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep a low profile and not join Obama on the attack.

What that makes the president’s stimulus and tax increase proposal a dead letter now, it also makes it increasingly unlikely that Obama can muster support for a larger deal from the debt-ceiling supercommittee.

With a weakening incumbent in the White House, Senate Democrats will hedge their bets.

Obama Answers the Carter Question

“I don't think they're better off than they were four years ago. They're not better off than they were before Lehman's collapse, before the financial crisis, before this extraordinary recession that we're going through. I think that what we've seen is that we've been able to make steady progress to stabilize the economy, but the unemployment rate is still way too high.”

-- President Obama in an interview with ABC News when asked how he would convince Americans that they are better off than they were four years ago.

Remember this moment – this is the first time that a sitting U.S. president made the explicit argument that the country is not better off after his term in office.

It’s a pretty astonishing moment looked at alone, but less surprising as part of a new declinist narrative that the president and his campaign have adopted. The argument for 2012 is that the country faces such huge problems that not only is it no shock that America is still in a slough but that Obama’s leadership has prevented the problem from being much worse. The second phase of the campaign will be in telling an anxious nation that no Republican is up to the huge task.

It’s a tough loop-de-loop for Obama to fly with voters as he looks to be a declinist who isn’t a downer. It will be easier once there is a Republican nominee to attack directly as unfit for office, but the current moment in which Obama has embraced the idea of American malaise, may prove unrecoverable.

If Americans believe Obama that the country is in trouble, they may still decide that he’s not equipped – practically or ideologically – to turn things around. For a president to embrace such a risky gambit for re-election, you know that things must look even worse from the inside.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“It's ironic for a president who attacked Bush as being divider. He is running his campaign on dividing labor against non-labor, gays and straights, and trying to energize people in terms of their ethnicity or groups.


Look, you can do that. It's legitimate. It's not unconstitutional. But it isn't what Obama promised. And I think it's a reason that people are so disaffected with him. He was going to be transcender, and now he is a guy who appeals on the basis of very small identity politics.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.