by M. David Hornbuckle
Politically speaking, Alabama is one of the reddest of the red states, but Jefferson County runs a little more to the blue side than the average. In 2008, President Obama won 52.2% of the vote in this county (against 47.1% for McCain)—not a huge margin, but enough to color us more purple than pink. Since then, a sluggish economy and continuing wars have contributed to a decline in the president's popularity across the board. From January 2009 to September 2011, his approval rating (according to Gallup) has shrunk from 67% to 43%. In the South, it has gone from 64% to 37%.
What do President Obama's supporters in our area think about his progress and policies since his election? And what do they think needs to happen in the next year if he's to be re-elected. We spoke to some leaders of local Democratic organizations about both of these topics.
Craig Niedenthal is chair of Over the Mountain Democrats, the largest Democratic grass roots organization in the state of Alabama. He says, "Obviously, we support the president. He came into office under terrible conditions, the worst I've ever seen. Some people had unreasonably high expectations. But there’s only so much he can do with a Republican congress who’s number one goal is to see him fail, even if it at the cost of destroying our country. . . As far as what needs to happen in the next year, I personally think he needs to take some tough stands, even if he ends up losing on those issues. It will expose his opponents in Congress as the obstructionists that they are."
Richard Mauk, the chair of the Jefferson County Democratic Executive Committee, seems to agree. "The loyal opposition is trying to paint him into a corner, and they're doing a damn good job of it," Mauk says. "They want to create an impression that this economy is an 'Obama economy' rather than a 'Republican economy.' [Obama] needs to roll his sleeves up and start getting specific. He's starting to do that. People don't like to rally around vanilla. They like to rally around salsa. Just ask anyone at your tailgate party."
Mauk, who has a degree in Economics and worked as a bankruptcy lawyer for many years, now runs a credit counseling firm. He explains that the Republican's metaphor about the national debt has been "a family of four that makes $30,000 a year can't spend more than $30,000 a year. If they do, they go into debt, and that's bad." But he says that Democrats should counter that with a metaphor of a small business. You can't start making money unless you have some money to start the business with. So you have to borrow it. That helps you build the infrastructure you need to start gradually paying the debt down. Mauk says that the only time you should cut spending is when you have full employment, because that situation can lead to inflation. Otherwise, spending cuts increase unemployment. "The Republicans didn't want to cut spending eight years ago," Mauk says. "They want to drive up unemployment so they can pin the blame on Obama."
The opinions of Niedenthal and Mauk jibe with what we take to be the general opinion of most progressives. The president's biggest weakness has been in giving up too much to compromise, starting with propositions that are perhaps too reasonable and leaving himself too little room to bargain with a decidedly conservative Congress. Of course, progressives are not jumping ship on the president. There's nobody else they can reasonably vote for next year anyway. Among registered Democrats, President Obama's approval rating has dropped only a few points.
Whatever Obama does in the next year to help his chances of re-election, Niedenthal says, there is something progressives groups at home can do to help. They can educate the public about how progressive policies will benefit people in their own communities. Therefore, the goal of local grassroots progressive organizations in the next year is going to be to convince moderate to conservative white working class people to stop voting against their own interests.