By DONNA CASSATA
WASHINGTON — Just one week old, June already is proving a cruel month for President Barack Obama and the Democrats — and it could get a lot worse.
The political blows from Tuesday’s bitter loss in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall and from last week’s abysmal unemployment numbers, bad as they were, could multiply before the month is out.
The Supreme Court will pass judgment shortly on the president’s signature legislative achievement — the 2010 law overhauling the nation’s health care system — and also will decide on his administration’s challenge to Arizona’s tough immigration law. If Chief Justice John Roberts and the court strike down all or part of the health care law, it could demoralize Democrats who invested more than a year — and quite a few political careers — to secure the bill’s passage.
And in Arizona, aside from the big immigration case, the Democrats are fighting to hold onto the House seat of Gabrielle Giffords, who resigned in January to focus on recovering from her gunshot wound. In next Tuesday’s special election, former Giffords aide Ron Barber is locked in a close race with Republican Jesse Kelly, who lost to her in 2010 by just 4,156 votes.
Facing an election-year summer fraught with political peril, the Democrats are struggling to revive supporters’ spirits and counteract developments that could energize Republicans and solidify public opinion that the country is on the wrong track and in need of new leadership.
In a video pep talk to supporters this week, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina acknowledged the challenge. “We need to stay focused, work hard and ignore the ups and downs,” he said.
Even before the votes were counted in Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s win over Democrat Tom Barrett Tuesday night, there was hand-wringing and second-guessing among Democrats on Capitol Hill.
— The jobs numbers have them worried that they’ll be running on a weak economy, with the White House — and them — getting the blame.
— Wisconsin’s implications for the general election and for organized labor in general have some asking why Obama didn’t get more involved than an 11th-hour tweet.
— The looming Supreme Court decision on the health care law has some Democrats insisting the White House and the party did a terrible job selling the overhaul to the American people.
There’s no shortage of Democratic advice on how Obama should frame the message for voters in the next five months.
In Wisconsin, millions of dollars spent on Walker’s behalf trumped labor’s get-out-the-vote effort in a swing state that suddenly moves up on the battleground list in the presidential race. Republicans also have set their sights on the seat of retiring Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl in a race that probably will pit Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin against the winner of the Aug. 14 GOP primary. Former presidential candidate Tommy Thompson, a former governor, faces former Rep. Mark Neumann.
Hours before Walker’s win, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., said Obama should have gone to Wisconsin to help Barrett.
“I don’t understand what he stood to lose in Wisconsin. I can’t make that make sense,” Hastings said in an interview. He wondered if Obama had been overly worried about alienating the “3 or 4 percent Republicans that may have voted for him the last time,” and added, “Nobody, nobody knows what so-called independents are going to do.” In 2008, Obama won the state, 56-42 percent.
Labor is a core Democratic constituency, and Hastings fears that Walker’s win will provide cover for efforts to undermine collective bargaining rights for unions.
On Wednesday, House Republicans emerging from their weekly closed-door meeting said the mood was clearly upbeat after the Wisconsin win and the task ahead will be keeping high political expectations in check.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, cast the message in economic terms and oft-repeated GOP arguments.
“The American people have had it with big government, high taxes and a regulatory system that knows no bounds, and they want elected officials to take control of the situation so the American job creators can go back to doing what they do best, creating jobs,” Boehner told reporters.
The economy trumps all issues, and the worse-than-expected 69,000 jobs created in May and an uptick in the unemployment rate to 8.2 percent worry Democrats.
“That’s a bad number so there’s concern,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. “We can defend the Obama record. We’ve created jobs. The legacy of the Bush collapse is real. But what affects the mood, traditionally it’s been the economy as perceived by voters about six months out. .... All of us are obviously hoping for better job numbers.”
Welch said if the public perception is of an economy getting better, as it was until May, “then it’s much more favorable to the election being a choice between Obama and Romney. My view, Obama wins that easily. If it becomes just a referendum on Obama, i.e., the economy, then we’re playing more defense than we want to.”
The next batch of jobs numbers comes out July 6.
The upcoming Supreme Court decision on health care is a painful reminder to Democrats that Americans favor some elements of the massive law aimed at extending medical insurance to more than 30 million Americans but the far-reaching overhaul has never gained broad approval.
“I’m amazed at the high negatives,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. “Republicans have done a good job demonizing the bill, and evidently we haven’t done a good enough job explaining it or people haven’t paid enough attention because it’s a complicated piece of legislation.”
Democrats point to the more popular provisions — the law’s banning denial of coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions, allowing children to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26 and reducing Americans’ Medicare prescription drug costs by closing the “donut hole.”
The main issue for the court is the constitutionality of the individual insurance requirement. Opponents argue that Congress lacked the authority under the Constitution to force Americans to buy insurance.
If the court strikes down the law, many of the more popular elements are gone, said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. Asked if Americans are aware of that, he said, “Probably not, but they will be.”
Former Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., said the administration and the party’s congressional leaders should have focused on a pared-back but bipartisan health care bill with the more popular elements.
“That would have been a game-changer,” said Taylor, who lost in the Republican wave in 2010. “Just leave it simple like that, something you could explain to the public. But they missed that opportunity.”
Obama’s ambitious approach on health care turned the summer of 2009 into a cacophony of angry town hall meetings in which voters confronted lawmakers. In the summer of 2010, Obama struggled with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Last summer, the president was mired in negotiations with Congress over increasing the nation’s borrowing authority that pushed the country to the brink of default and provided fodder to critics who argued that Obama was weak.
Former Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, said Obama and Democrats need to put the economic outlook in context — gone are the recession days of losing 700,000 jobs per month and a nation on the verge of a second Great Depression. The country is moving forward, he said.
He was reminded of something former President Bill Clinton once said: “Sometimes the problem with Democrats is that we don’t know the difference between an issue and a message.” Edwards said Democrats can’t just debate the issue, they need to debate the broad message.