President Barack Obama’s January 28 State of the Union address without a doubt set the stage for the 2014 midterm congressional elections. Before Congress, the president declared the state of the union was strong. “Here are the results of your efforts: The lowest unemployment rate in over five years; a rebounding housing market; a manufacturing sector that’s adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s,” he proclaimed. But of course, the U.S. economic situation does look better if 2009 is used as the baseline. Yet Obama did not speak for long without identifying the nation’s challenges as well. “Average wages have barely budged,” he said. “Inequality has deepened; upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by — let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”
The economy will not be the only issue for debate in the coming months — issues such as abortion, healthcare, and government spending will be hotly debated as well. However, Obama did indeed put the spotlight on the state of the American middle class during the State of the Union address, announcing his plans to expand opportunities of all. “The President’s top priority remains ensuring middle class Americans feel secure in their jobs, homes, and budgets,” read a fact sheet released by the White House alongside the official address.
Of particular importance to Obama’s domestic agenda are the still-exceedingly-high numbers of long-term unemployed Americans and low wages. The U.S. economy may recovering, and recovering rapidly as The Economist’s Zanny Minton Beddoes told NPR, but that recovery is leaving behind a large percentage of the country’s residents. “A lot of the gains of the recovery that we’ve seen have gone to the people at the very top, particularly the top 1 percent,” Minton said. “Ordinary people’s incomes have not accelerated that much, and so it doesn’t seem as though the economy is doing that well.”
This reality is evident in the numbers. In the fourth-quarter, U.S. gross domestic product expanded at a 3.5 annual pace, a rate economists deem neither too fast nor too slow. But “people are telling us in a lot of ways that they’re struggling financially,” Carroll Doherty, director of political research for the Pew Research Center, told NPR. “It’s been years since there’s been any real substantial improvement in people’s feelings about the economy,” he added. Recent polls also show that for a plurality of Americans incomes are not keeping up with the costs of living, and that more Americans consider themselves to be lower-middle or lower class than did before the recession.
However, the fervor to implement change expressed by the White House does not seem to be echoed by the nation as a whole. Data from the research firm Pew Research indicates Republicans are much more anxious to go to the polls this November. Plus, Obama’s domestic goals have not appealed to Americans across party lines, and the memory of the past year — a year dominated by ineffectual negotiations between Democrats and Republicans and the glitch-riddled implementation of the key provision of the Affordable Care Act — has cast a long shadow.
As politicians accelerate congressional campaigns in preparation for this year’s midterm elections, a recent Pew survey shows 63 percent of Republicans are anticipating the congressional elections, compared to only 53 percent of Democrats. This disparity between levels of pre-election excitement expressed by each political party mirrors the partisan split evident four years ago during the 2010 midterm elections, according to Pew. It was in 2010 that a wave of pro-Republican sentiment put the GOP in control of the House of Representatives. Furthermore, a Gallup poll found that fewer U.S states are leaning Democrat. In 2013, blue states outnumbered red states, 17 to 14, according to the firm. That three-state lead is smaller than the Democrat party’s seven-state advantage in 2012 and significantly less than its 30-state lead in 2008, the first year Gallup tracked this metric. However, the current lead is larger than the near-tie in political sentiment the firm recorded in 2011.
For reference, the most solidly Democratic state was the District of Columbia and the least solid Democratic state was New Mexico, while the most solidly Republican state was Wyoming and the least solid Republican state was South Carolina. More important than the leaders are the trends exhibited by Gallup’s data; Republican states were clustered in the center of the United States, stretching west to the Rockies, and included a group in the Southeast. Meanwhile, Democrat states lined the East and West Coasts and generally surrounded the Great Lakes. “As seen in 2012, only a handful of states share a border with a state oriented to the opposing party, underscoring the extreme regional separation of the parties,” wrote Gallup’s Lydia Saad.
But despite the increasing number of Republican-leaning states, the overall political orientation of the United States remained relatively unchanged in 2013 as compared with the previous year; the Democrat party held a six-point lead, or 47 percent to 41 percent, over Republicans. In 2012, the party held a five-point advantage. “Part of the reason for this seeming discrepancy is that some of the Democratic Party’s largest gains last year were in highly populous states, and ones where the Democrats already held a strong lead,” explained Saad. “They gained three points each in California, New Jersey, and New York, and one point in Illinois. Thus, while helping to increase Democratic ID nationally, these gains did not add to the number of Democratic states.”
Furthermore, the fact that Democrat popularity is increasing predominantly in Democratic-leaning states has great implications ahead of the 2014 elections, when 36 Senate seats and 36 governorships will be contested. While the Republican Party did make small gains in the political orientation of several states, with three more states leaning toward the GOP, Democrat states still outnumber Republican states. But the shift “reflects a gradual shrinking of the Democrats’ dominance since 2008, the year Barack Obama first won the presidency.”
In 2010, the Democrat Party still had a twelve-state lead, and that year midterm elections pushed 63 Democrats out of the House of Representatives establishing the current Republican majority. Now in 2013, with that lead down to just 4 states, three Senators are up for reelection in solidly Republican states, South Dakota, Montana, and Alaska, and a number of Senate seats are up for reelection in “a host of truly competitive states.” This means that the Democrat majority in the Senate is at risk and the “political climate appears relatively auspicious for Republicans,” noted Saad.
But, it is important to remember that state partisanship does not always match state voting patterns and does not account for the influence of incumbency or the issues at stake in a given race. “Further, to the extent state partisanship is instructive in forecasting how statewide elections play out, it remains to be seen how the 2013 patterns might change in 2014,” wrote Saad. “The elections will be held more than 10 months into the year, and more than a year after most of the 2013 data were collected.” Plus, any significant change in Obama’s job approval rating by this fall could affect the Democrat party’s popularity nationally and potentially impact some congressional races.
Currently, 51 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Barack Obama is doing as president, while 41 percent approve. Amid battles over the budget, revelations about the National Security Agency’s mass-surveillance programs, and the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, Obama averaged a 41 percent approval rating throughout 2013. It is not unusual for a president to experience a lower approval rating in their second term than in their first, but it is less common to see sustained periods of significant decline during the normal course of a presidency, according to Gallup. While economic problems dominated political discourse, it is Obama’s political problems that the firm cited as reasons for the prolonged job approval decline last year.
However, with Obama’s commitment to propel his domestic agenda forward by “pen and phone” if necessary, his 2014 job approval rating could increase if the American public perceives the president to be taking action. “The public doesn’t care much who gets things done — what they care about is whether the things get done, and whether they work well for them,” as Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, explained to CBS News after Obama’s address last week.
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