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The Democrats' Obama Problem

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With the loss of a close House special election in Florida, the entry of several strong Republican contenders in close Senate races, and continuing fallout from flaws in the Accordable Care Act, Democrats are in a panic about their president dragging down the Democratic ticket in this November's mid-term elections.

Many Democrats have joined Republicans in criticizing Obama Care. Several Democratic incumbent senators in swing states have already moved to distance themselves from President Obama in key confirmation votes.

The opposition of seven Senate Democrats killed the nomination of Debo Adegbile to be assistant attorney general for civil rights -- he had once defended Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of murdering a cop, and whose professed innocence became a cause celebre on both left and right. Opposition from centrist Democrats is also derailing the nomination of Dr. Vivek Murthy to be surgeon general, because the National Rifle Association sent out a member alert that Dr. Murthy had spoken out on guns as a public health problem.

Both of these candidates were highly qualified, and it was outrageous on the merits that they were not confirmed. On the other hand, a little political advance work would have revealed that their appointments would cause acute embarrassment to Democratic candidates trying to hold seats in conservative states in a difficult election year. (Does the Obama political operation communicate with the appointment staff?)

It's a tricky business when a president's unpopularity hurts members of his own party. If a Democratic candidate criticizes him, the president and his party appear even weaker. But supporting an unpopular president does rub off on down-ticket officials.

What to do?

The best thing that Democrats -- including President Obama -- have come up with lately are measures to remind voters that Democrats care about the worsened economic condition of ordinary working families and Republicans don't. Obama, for instance, went to a recent gathering of Democratic governors meeting in Connecticut, and urged them to raise the state minimum wage. Even if Republicans in Congress block the President's efforts to deliver a higher national minimum wage, he said, governors and legislatures could and should raise the minimum at the state level. Good move.

Even better are state referenda to increase the minimum wage. These not only draw to the polls voters likely to vote for Democrats, but put Republicans in the awkward position of having to explain why they oppose giving America a raise.

A variety of other ballot initiatives could remind working voters why Democrats protect their interests and Republicans don't. Massachusetts and other states are likely to see ballot measures mandating paid sick leave. That idea has the support of overwhelming majorities of voters -- even more than a minimum wage hike--because paid sick leave affects everyone.

The United States is also the only wealthy country where workers are not entitled to an annual minimum paid vacation. We could use some ballot initiatives on that front as well. It's always instructive to see business groups - who are enjoying record profits relative to their employees - bleat that even minimal standards for workers would be "job-killers"; and to listen to Republicans echo the party line of their corporate allies.

Another good issue for ballot initiatives and Democrats is the lunacy of college debt.

It's time to end exorbitant borrowing to pay for higher education, a policy that has shackled the dreams of young Americans. Oregon has approved a pilot program experimenting with the concept of adding a progressive surcharge on the income tax to pay college costs -- people of median income would pay far less than they currently pay in student loans. Other states should follow.

Issues like these reclaim the Democratic soul and remind voters that the problems in Washington are not the result of symmetrical partisan "bickering" or "gridlock". Rather, Republicans block policies that might give some economic help to regular people.

But what of Obama himself? What might he do to be less of a lead weight on other Democrats?

Obama last week directed the Labor Department to update and more effectively enforce overtime regulations requiring employers to pay time-and-a-half for employees who work more than 40 hours a week. A lot of workers are excluded from coverage because corporations create bogus categories like "assistant manager" that exempts relatively low-wage workers from these rules.

When Obama acted, business groups and their Republican friends made the usual noises about higher costs, as if it were a reasonable business practice to cheat workers out of overtime that has been mandated in the law since 1938.

Obama's order was fine as far as it went, but the president could do a lot more.

For five years, worker advocates have been imploring the president to use his executive powers to raise labor standards in federal contractors, to have the Labor Department crack down on a variety of abuses such as widespread wage theft, phony classification of regular employees as temps or contract workers, and violation of the right to unionize. A much more high profile initiative could have more political impact.

Obama should also stop supporting budget austerity at the expense of working people. The president came within ace of watering down the annual cost of living increase in Social Security, as part of a proposed grand budget bargain with Republicans that was never in the cards. He relented only because the entire Democratic party base went off on him.

Some of the Democrats' dilemma this November is baked into the cake. It's normal for the incumbent's party to lose House and Senate seats in the sixth year of a presidential incumbency. By the luck of the draw, a lot of Senate Democrats are up for re-election in swing states. On the other hand, the Affordable Care Act rollout was bungled more than it had to be, and some of the bungling was a logical consequence of the deep flaws in its design.

Even so, Obama, who found to his chagrin that no amount of compromise could win over Republicans, could be finding his inner partisan, however belatedly, and reminding working people just why it's not in their interest to have Republicans take over both Houses of Congress.

It's hard enough to run as a Democrat this year. Obama could be doing a lot more to make it a little easier.

Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.

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