With the 2010 election less than three months away, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' finger-in-the-eye remarks about the "professional left" could hardly have come at a worse time. After all, it is the first lesson of Politics 101 that successful politicians energize rather than alienate their base. Yet here we have Gibbs mocking progressives as the kind of people who won't be satisfied until "we have Canadian health care and have eliminated the Pentagon." Then, when given the opportunity two days later to distance himself from his remarks when CBS's Chip Reed asked, "Did you put your foot in your mouth," Gibbs shot back, "I think I have both feet firmly planted on the floor."
So progressives -- many of whom are already upset by the Obama administration's escalation of the war in Afghanistan, its refusal to fight for a public option in health care, its failure to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and to close Guantanamo, its loosening of the rules on offshore drilling, and what is perceived as its excessively solicitous stance towards Wall Street -- now have still another reason to feel unenthusiastic about the fall election. Yet when asked on Wednesday whether progressives might stay home in November, Gibbs seemed casually confident that they would not.
In truth, turnout is always a problem in midterm elections. In contrast to presidential elections, when turnout typically exceeds 50 percent of the voting-age population, congressional election year turnouts are always under 40 percent; since 1972, when 18 year olds first voted, the average turnout for presidential elections has been 53 percent, compared to 37 percent for congressional elections -- a 16-point gap. But midterm elections not only have lower turnout; Those who vote tend to be older and of higher socioeconomic status -- an ominous pattern for the Democrats, who benefited from unusually strong support from the young and from low-income voters in the 2008 election.
Midterm elections are usually unfriendly to the party of the incumbent president; over the course of the past 17 midterm elections, the party in the White House has lost an average of 28 seats in the House of Representatives. But 2010 could be much worse for the Democrats than the typical midterm election because of the much-discussed "enthusiasm gap" between the parties. In a June 2010 USA Today/Gallup Poll, 53 percent of Republicans reported being more enthusiastic than usual about voting compared to 39 percent who were less enthusiastic; for Democrats, the figures were 35 percent more enthusiastic than usual and 56 percent less enthusiastic. The gap between the Republicans (+14 percent) and Democrats (-21 percent) is thus 35 points -- the largest gap ever measured by Gallup in a midyear election poll. This enthusiasm gap is why Democrats face a very real prospect of losing control of the House of the Representatives to Republicans in November -- a prospect that the Irish-based online prediction market, Intrade, now estimates to be more than 60 percent.
One additional source of the Obama administration's problems -- one that extends well beyond its difficulties with progressives -- is the widespread perception that its policies have often taken the side of Wall Street over the interests of ordinary people. In a September 2009 poll taken by Hart Associates, 60 percent of respondents felt that the banks had been helped by government economic policies, but only 13 percent felt that average working people had been helped. And when asked in a 2010 National Journal poll who had benefited most from the government's response to the financial crisis, a whopping 76 percent said the wealthy and the powerful (banks -- 40 percent, major corporations -- 20 percent, wealthy individuals -- 16 percent).
This is a toxic political environment for the Obama administration, and it is one in which it can ill afford to take pot shots at progressives -- the very people whose votes, money, and enthusiasm helped propell Obama to victory first in the primaries over Hillary Clinton and then in the November election. But there is something that President Obama can do that would simultaneously help mend his strained relations with progressives and counter the popular perception that he is too cozy with Wall Street. He could immediately appoint Elizabeth Warren, who reportedly met with White House officials on Thursday, to lead the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.
A passionate, charismatic, and effective advocate for consumers, and the person who originated the idea of the agency in a paper she wrote in 2007, Warren has become a critical test case for whether President Obama has the courage to protect the interests of ordinary people, even when it means conflict with Wall Street. The substantive case for Warren has been made eloquently elsewhere (in the Nation, New York Times and Huffington Post); my point here is that, especially in the wake of Gibbs' ill-advised remarks, the appointment of Warren is an opportunity for President Obama to show that he remains committed to the ideals that brought him to the White House and willing to put these ideals into practice.
In a video presentation to the Netroots Conference in July, President Obama told those in the audience "to keep holding me accountable, to keep up the fight." That is what progressives are trying to do in pressing for the appointment of Elizabeth Warren -- nothing more and nothing less.