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The Democrats' Real 'Energy' Gap

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This final hour of the health care battle looks promising for Barack Obama -- political analysts say he is winning back the base, and even the skeptical Paul Krugman is "impressed."

But this conventional wisdom is wrong. Obama never actually "lost" his core supporters in the first place. He does have a problem with the base. But it is about energy, not loyalty.

The current danger for the White House is not losing its coalition, which has shown it can stomach a lot, but rather mistaking its allegiance for enthusiasm.

According to a metric just introduced by Gallup last week, only 27 percent of Democrats are "enthusiastic" about voting in the midterms. Republicans are far more pumped: Forty-three percent say they are eager to turn out.

Put aside all the coverage of Obama's political woes. The fact is that this president is unusually popular within his party and strongly backed by self-identified liberals and the cohorts who propelled him to victory in 2008.

About 82 percent of Democrats currently approve of Obama's job performance. By historical standards, that's gangbusters. At this point in a first term, no Democratic president has held such high standing within his party since Lyndon B. Johnson. (LBJ clocked in just 3 percentage points higher.)

By ideology, Obama still does very well on the left: Seventy-nine percent of liberals approve of his job performance. And that number jumps to 89 percent among liberal Democrats. By contrast, moderates are at 58 percent, while conservatives hover at a sour 26 percent.

Meanwhile, the young, educated and multiracial coalition that Obama built is still in his corner.

About 61 percent of voters younger than 30 currently approve of Obama, while every other age bracket stands below 50 percent. That is a departure from the past two administrations, in which the approval gap by age ran only 3 to 6 percentage points. And a whopping 91 percent of black Americans approve of Obama's job performance.

A White House official told me these numbers show that while the base is "frustrated," given the current political process, Obama's supporters still think he is on the "right track."

"The core of the president's support, young people and African-Americans in particular, are still seeking change in Washington," the official said, but they "understand that changing that system is not going to happen overnight."

Tune out the background noise, and it is undeniable that the grass-roots, left-leaning base is one of the only bright spots for this rough patch of Obama's presidency.

But that might not be bright enough.

Political operatives don't tend to be existentialists. They do know, however, that if a supporter doesn't vote, then his or her opinion does not make a sound -- or a difference. Just look at the midterms. Current tracking polls still show that more voters prefer Democratic candidates to Republicans for Congress. Everyone expects Republican gains, however, partly because of the yawning enthusiasm gap.

While new administrations always struggle with the first midterm election, enthusiasm is where Obama's unusual coalition is particularly vulnerable.

Right now, only 20 percent of those voters younger than 30 are "very enthusiastic" about voting. That is half the rate of older voters.

"Younger Americans are decidedly more Democratic than the national average," notes the latest Gallup report on the midterms, "thus their apparent lack of motivation to vote -- if it continues until Election Day -- could deprive Democrats of the full benefit [if their base turned out]."

Translation: It's hard for Democrats to take solace in their youth support if millennials stay home.

The same age gap appears in a tracking poll from Daily Kos. That poll also found only 28 percent of black voters plan to turn out, compared with 49 percent of white voters.

Does this White House know the difference between approval and enthusiasm?

The official I spoke with could see that people see it -- referring to "what others describe as an enthusiasm gap" -- but argued that legislative progress will mobilize the base.

"As members of Congress are able to make a specific case about what they've done in the last two years," said the official, predicting success on health care and financial reform, "[then we'll] start to see what others describe as an enthusiasm gap start to diminish."

The GOP obviously agrees with the White House. Republicans believe an obstructionist, do-nothing Congress will deny Obama momentum and keep their base energized. For his part, the president must pivot from bipartisan meetings to legislative action. Otherwise, his loyal supporters from 2008 may turn into a silent majority.

Ari Melber writes a monthly column for Politico, where this piece first appeared.