- - Monday, July 21, 2014

If you think President Obama’s administration has unraveled, the denouement could be just beginning. Its real consequence would come when congressional Democrats, who have remained extremely loyal to the president, begin to split from him. If they do — and November election losses could drive that — America could see a presidency come apart.

The latest nationwide Quinnipiac poll shows Mr. Obama’s deepening trouble. A plurality of respondents (45 percent) said the country would have been better off if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, and Mr. Obama rated first (33 percent) in voting for America’s worst post-World War II president.

Mr. Obama’s overall approval rating was just 40 percent, and was only this high because 79 percent of Democrats still approve of him. In comparison, only 31 percent of independents and 10 percent of Republicans do.


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Not only have Democratic voters remained supportive of the president, but congressional Democrats have largely done so, too — despite many needing more than Democrats’ votes to win their elections.

Why are so many congressional Democrats remaining loyal to Mr. Obama as he sinks with the general electorate? First, Mr. Obama demands liberals’ loyalty. In 2012, they were 25 percent of voters, but 86 percent of those who voted for him. Second: money. No one raises money like Mr. Obama. He is an irreplaceable ATM for Democrats, and as voter satisfaction falls, money’s importance rises. Finally, Mr. Obama wields politics’ biggest loudspeaker. No one has a larger pulpit than his, and if Democrats are to have a chance in November, they need him to provide the message.

In short, Democrats are largely stuck with the president. There is little time to separate from him before November and nowhere else to go to get the liberals, lucre and loudspeaker he offers. For now, they must hope Mr. Obama can re-create his 2012 magic and avoid a reprise of 2010’s debacle. Mr. Obama alone offers Democrats a chance to avoid a negative national election.


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However, after November, everything changes. If Republicans take the Senate and add to their House majority, Democrats’ motivation could quickly change.

Then Mr. Obama’s election magic will be over. He can no longer save them at the polls, because he will never again be on a ballot — and it conclusively will have been shown that without him on the ballot, Mr. Obama cannot pull his supporters to the polls.

Mr. Obama will also be a lame duck. This happens to all presidents in the second half of their final term, regardless of how they perform. However, should he confront a Republican-controlled Congress with his already-low public approval ratings, he will be the lamest of ducks. Then the question will not be as much what he does as what the GOP will do.

Republicans can immediately begin crafting legislation that will not only put Mr. Obama in a difficult position, but legislation that will start dividing his congressional Democrats from him. Approving the Keystone XL pipeline would likely just be the beginning of an energy initiative that will split Democrats and unions from the White House. Tough votes on Obamacare and immigration could do the same.

Republicans could also go after scandals — existing ones and any arising ones — and put investigations in motion that would further depress Mr. Obama’s public support. The Veteran Affairs scandal, Benghazi and Internal Revenue Service political targeting are all examples of issues that have already hurt the White House — this despite special prosecutors or bicameral investigations not pursuing them.

It is overlooked how symbiotic the relationship between Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats has been. The president’s contribution to congressional Democrats has been clear — just as his rising threat to them is now. Overlooked has been the important role Democrats have played to sustaining Mr. Obama’s presidency. Democratic control of the Senate has protected the president from tough legislation and wide-ranging investigations.

If November produces dual Republican majorities, this protection vanishes for both Democrats and their leader. With Mr. Obama having hurt them once more in a midterm election, with lame-duck status diminishing his current prospects, and little chance he can help them in the future, congressional Democrats could quickly break with the White House — especially when Republicans actively acerbate such divisions.

A foundering ship can be kept afloat through the efforts of its crew. However, once its seaworthiness is fully compromised, the vessel once a sanctuary becomes a trap. Even proximity to it becomes dangerous as the sinking hulk pulls down those around it. Without hands onboard, it sinks even more quickly. The good ship Obama could quickly find itself in just such a predicament in November.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.