St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Will Obama save the senate by going to war?

This morning's Gallup Poll (covering the first three days of September) pegged President Obama's job approval at 38%, his all-time low. That's pretty close to just his partisan base. His unpopularity is producing enough of a drag on Democratic incumbents and challengers in this year's midterm elections, that Nate Silver's Five-Thirty-Eight Senate Forecast today gives Republicans a 63.4% chance of overcoming the Democrats' 6-seat cushion and seizing the majority in the U.S. Senate.

On the other hand, the Presidency provides an unparallelled opportunity to create game-changing events, a so-called "October surprise." This often involves a total about-face by an unpopular president in an important policy matter. Lyndon Johnson's halting of Vietnam War bombing in 1968, literally the day before the election pitting his Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, against Richard Nixon (and third-party candidate George Wallace), is generally regarded as the ultimate October surprise. The move failed to elect Humphrey, but it is regarded as saving a number of Congressional Democrats, including Missouri's open seat (won by Lt. Gov. Tom Eagleton, 51-49%, over Rep. Tom Curtis (R-St. Louis County)).

A "peace move" like Johnson's is not really possible for Obama, who took office with a Nobel Peace Prize already in hand. Obama's October surprise would have to be the opposite - asking Congress to declare war. To the extent that war is ever justifiable, the brutal actions of the new Islamic State could easily provide a justifiable pretext that most swing voters would support and appreciate. A recent poll claims that Americans support war against the Islamic State by a 63-16% margin, in contrast with opposition to military intervention in Syria, 20-62%, just a year earlier. With most Obama critics harping on his alleged timidity and indecision in the face of the ISIS/ISIL/IS threat, asking Congress for a declaration of war would indeed be the kind of 180-degree turn that comprise classic October surprises.

Moreover, Americans tend to rally behind their president in times of war, even if they think the President might have been at fault. Note the otherwise unexplainable spike in George W. Bush's popularity following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 (from 51% on September 10 to 86% on September 15), in spite of his befuddled initial reaction.

On the other hand, would playing the war card alienate the Democrats' anti-war base? I'm not aware of any polling data that specific, but one could surmise that the 16% opposing such action is composed primarily of people who instinctively oppose military action on principle, i.e., part of the Democrat base. No, these voters won't defect to Republicans, but with very few progressive independent or third-party alternatives, they might not vote at all.

And then there is the question whether the President would take action contrary to his base instincts in order to save fellow party members. Would improving the chances of congressional approval of the remaining parts of his agenda be enough to get him to take action he seemingly finds so distasteful?