The latest election results sent a clear message: No incumbent is safe.
Take Sen. Blanche Lincoln, for example. Yes, she managed to narrowly defeat liberal challenger Bill Halter, 52 percent to 48 percent, in a hard-fought Arkansas Democratic Senate primary runoff last week. But as a Washington veteran in an anti-Washington year, she is expected to face an even tougher race against the Republicans this fall. In the two marquee primary campaigns in California, businesswomen prevailed. Former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman won the GOP nod for governor over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina grabbed the GOP nomination for Senate, defeating former Congressman Tom Campbell. In those races, government experience seemed to be a liability. [See where Lincoln's campaign cash comes from.]
But there is a larger point. Many analysts are debating whether the voters' mood is anti-Washington, anti-incumbent, or antigovernment. What appears to be happening is all of the above. Voters are unhappy with how things are going in general, so they are lashing out at the status quo. That's why neither Democratic nor Republican officeholders have job security. Just ask Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania or Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, both dumped by their party's voters this year.
Democratic strategists argue that the Republicans are moving too far to the right under the influence of the conservative Tea Party movement. "The demand for ideological purity that the Tea Party has imposed on the Republican party," says Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, "has radicalized otherwise mainstream candidates, has resulted in the nomination of candidates whose views will be offensive to moderate and independent voters who are key to success in general elections, and has resulted in Republican officeholders or establishment picks lurching to the right or being purged by the Tea Party." As examples, Woodhouse cites "the increasingly extreme positions" of Whitman and Fiorina.
But the rebellion can be traced at least in part to dissatisfaction with the policies of President Obama, pollsters say. Many Americans are now worried about whether he is competent, and this could be the most damaging perception he has faced so far. In some ways, this assessment reflects the impatient and polarized times. But there's no doubt that Obama has hit a crucial juncture. How he handles the multiple issues on his plate this spring and summer will go a long way toward deciding how his party does in the midterm elections in November, and whether he will face an uphill climb for re-election in 2012.
It's been one crisis after another since Obama took office in January 2009, including the financial meltdown, two ongoing wars, the global fight against terrorism, and the bailout of U.S. auto makers. There is also the balky, cranky Congress and, of course, the painfully high unemployment rate, which is hovering at about 10 percent nationally. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Obama's latest emergency is the uncontrolled oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, and polls show that Americans aren't very impressed by how he has been dealing with it. Nearly 70 percent of Americans disapprove of the administration's handling of the environmental disaster. More generally, only 2 percent of Americans are enthusiastic about the way the federal government works and 28 percent are satisfied, but a whopping 45 percent are dissatisfied and 25 percent say they are angry, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News polls.
Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and now a GOP consultant, says that voters are disappointed in two key aspects of the Obama administration—what they consider his shaky response to the oil disaster and his use of government activism to address the country's problems, such as through costly federal bailouts of banks and auto companies. Obama is "reinforcing the impression that he is weak and not effective," Gillespie says.
The president seemed to have such criticism in mind when he commented last week that he has been carefully monitoring the oil developments so he knows "whose ass to kick." But beyond his indelicate language, Obama's performance raises doubts not only about his own competence but about the competence of government. And based on the latest election returns, those doubts may be spreading.