Notwithstanding the accident that left him blind in his right eye and with four broken ribs, Minority Leader Harry Reid labored hard to show he was still in command during his month’s forced absence from the Senate. Aides claimed he worked the phones from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., making as many as 60 calls a day.
But it is difficult to lead a demoralized legislative caucus from a Ritz Carlton condo across town from Capitol Hill. Democratic senators watched Assistant Minority Leader Dick Durbin and Conference Vice Chairman Chuck Schumer jostle each other, with conference Secretary Patty Murray nearby to break up the competition if needed.
The troika could do little but urge the caucus to vote no. Yet there were 16 roll-call votes on amendments by Jan. 22—more than the Senate considered in 2014. On Jan. 29 nine Democrats defected to pass a bill approving construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This is evidence the upper chamber is again a functioning legislative body.
Mr. Reid’s return to the Senate Tuesday changes little. By choosing confrontation over conciliation and posturing over legislating, President Obama has forced congressional Democrats into being obstructionists. They are fast becoming the Party of No. Only moderate Democrats willing to buck the White House and constructively legislate can change this hardening impression.
Complicating life for Democrats is that they not only have much to oppose from Republicans, but they also have little to stand for. Mr. Obama’s State of the Union was a political, not a governing, address. The president knows his agenda has zero chance of becoming law. It was meant not to pass but instead to motivate the Democratic base for 2016 and fix the party’s problem with middle-class and blue-collar voters.
The latter challenge could deny Democrats the White House in 2016, according to a perceptive Jan. 31 National Journal article by liberal journalist John Judis titled“The Emerging Republican Advantage.” His 2002 book with Ruy Teixeira, “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” predicted decades of Democratic dominance through a coalition of minorities and professionals with graduate degrees. This rosy scenario is now imperiled as the white working class (36% for Mr. Obama in 2012, down from 40% in 2008) and middle-class voters (46% for Mr. Obama in 2012 after winning them in 2008) move into the GOP column.
Mr. Obama’s agenda is unlikely to fix the party’s problems. Its elements are not all that popular with voters or even congressional Democrats. It’s hard to envision Democratic candidates in swing districts running under the fiscally irresponsible banner of “Free Community College.” The president’s proposal is especially ironic as the administration attempts shutting down for-profit colleges that do a better job of retaining and graduating the kind of students Mr. Obama says he’s championing.
The president’s pollsters certainly tested the language Mr. Obama used in his speech to Congress. But while politicians can say “middle class” all they want, it wears thin quickly without accompanying substance.
Mr. Judis suggests middle-class voters—those making $50,000-$100,000 a year with baccalaureate degrees—“tend to be less populist than white working-class voters when it comes to blaming Wall Street and the wealthy for the economy’s ills.” They are a growing share of the electorate and unlikely to be impressed with Mr. Obama’s rhetoric or his proposals to raise taxes on the top 20% to provide more refundable tax credits to the bottom 20%. Nor are working-class voters likely to applaud such transfer payments, too easily seen as welfare.
Mr. Obama’s new budget would grow discretionary spending at more than twice the rate of economic growth and never balance over the next decade. Instead, it increases the national debt $7 trillion, or 51%, by 2025. This is a problem for Democrats, since 71% of respondents in the Jan. 17 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll believe it is an “absolute priority” for the administration and Congress to reduce the deficit this year.
The budget is only one of this year’s battlegrounds and neither side will emerge unscathed. Senate Democrats will score points as they deny Republicans the 60 votes needed to pass a Homeland Security funding bill that blocks Mr. Obama’s immigration executive orders. But this will be a short-term boost.
The year’s arc is set: Led by their stubborn and ideologically rigid president, Democrats will obstruct popular Republican proposals in Congress. If this keeps pushing middle-class and working-class voters toward the GOP, it would help Republicans win their first presidential election in a dozen years.
A version of this article appeared February 5, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Seeding A Democratic Defeat In 2016 and online at WSJ.com.