By all accounts the Democrats face significant challenges in the midterm elections. It can't help them that the party's two most prominent figures—President Obama and Hillary Clinton —have become tone deaf.
Let's take the president and the IRS targeting of tea party and conservative groups. When the practice was revealed in May 2013, Mr. Obama called it "outrageous," saying "there's no place for it." He wanted the IRS "held fully accountable" since the agency "requires absolute integrity."
By December 2013 the president was playing down the scandal. IRS agents "in Cincinnati," he explained to Chris Matthews on MSNBC, "for bureaucratic reasons" were simply "trying to streamline a difficult law," yet "suddenly, everybody's outraged." He even blamed "liberal commentators" for joining the criticism of the IRS because "that is what gets news."
These days the White House routinely suggests that the IRS targeting is a "fabricated issue" and "phony scandal." Yet 76% in a June 24 Fox News poll said they believe IRS employee emails were "destroyed deliberately," suggesting that Americans believe it was part of a coverup.
The president should have kept expressing his hope that the truth will come out and his expectation that people will be held accountable. Yet he now offers a story line that is transparently untrue, inflames his critics and undermines his credibility.
This is part of a bigger problem for Mr. Obama: His presidency is crumbling. The economy contracted by 2.9% in the first quarter of 2014. ObamaCare is even more unpopular (disapproval is 55% according to the June 30 Quinnipiac poll). Children from Central American countries illegally pour across the border. Iraq is disintegrating as Islamist terrorists work to establish a caliphate. And Americans' confidence in the presidency according to the June 8 Gallup poll is 29%—lower at this point than for any of his predecessors. The Supreme Court has slapped him down in four rulings over the last two weeks.
When Mr. Obama gets hit and his numbers fall, he becomes brittle and defensive. "So sue me," he said Tuesday, mocking Republicans who want to stop his (unconstitutional) executive actions. Criticizing the House for not acting on his highway-funding proposal, he said, "It's not crazy, it's not socialism. It's not the imperial presidency—no laws are broken." It's generally not a good idea for a president to issue playground taunts.
Mr. Obama is not the only Democrat feeling edgy. After Hillary Clinton left the State Department in February 2013, Gallup tested her public standing that April, finding that 64% of Americans had a favorable impression and 31% unfavorable.
By June 8 of this year, Mrs. Clinton's favorables in the Gallup poll had dropped to 54% while her unfavorables had risen to 43%, which were her numbers at the end of the brutal 2008 Democratic primaries. And this was before her book tour.
The book itself, "Hard Choices," has been widely panned. Mrs. Clinton has stumbled through interviews, telling ABC's Diane Sawyeron June 9 that she and her husband "came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt."
The Clintons had enough money to buy multimillion-dollar homes in New York (1999) and Washington (2000). Mrs. Clinton told the Guardian on June 21 that, "We pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off . . . and we've done it through dint of hard work." It's unlikely that most voters would regard delivering speeches for $200,000 a pop as hard work.
She cannot say what her signature accomplishments as secretary of state were, while telling the BBC on June 12 that the reset in U.S.-Russian relations was "a brilliant stroke which in retrospect . . . appears even more so." Given Vladimir Putin's support of Syria's bloody dictator Bashar Assad and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, this is delusional.
Mrs. Clinton's strategy is genuinely puzzling. She is the prohibitive favorite to be the 2016 Democratic nominee. Why publish "Hard Choices" now? She should have kept a low profile, explaining that she was working on her book, meanwhile restocking her bank account with lucrative off-the-record speeches while resting up and honing her message. The book could be released after the November midterms.
Instead Mrs. Clinton plunged into a campaign-like tour clearly unprepared and said things that will remain in voters' minds long after her volume is remaindered in the bookstores.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are both snakebit. Bill Clinton, the most politically talented Democrat in generations, must be shaking his head in disbelief.
A version of this article appeared July 3, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline The Democrats' Top Leaders Wilt In The Polls and online at WSJ.com.