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Second term diminishing Dems' prospects

| Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

It is possible that everyone misread the results of the 2012 presidential election. Or, perhaps, over-read them.

As political strategists and number-crunchers try to predict how the electorate feels and which party is capturing voters' imaginations, they struggle with how to dissect the realities of 2014 and 2016 as seen from the vantage point of 2012.

Two trends are going on in American politics — the six-year itch and the after-effects of a class-warfare election cycle.

The first is almost a fixture of American politics: Re-elected presidents get arrogant, out of touch and complacent; they stop listening, stop trying to meet voters where they are.

A president's first term often is one for the voters. The second one often is for the president's ego.

This is not unique to Barack Obama. It has happened to many presidents (think of George W. Bush and his largely ignored plan to reform Social Security), and it is why opposition parties almost always gain seats in a president's second midterm cycle.

Yet, in Obama, you have a president who chose to run his second-term campaign almost devoid of an agenda. His campaign focused almost entirely on character assassination, portraying Mitt Romney as a heartless corporate raider who didn't care about average Americans.

Obama chose to say almost nothing about what he would do in a second term and, interestingly, chose not to brag about anything he'd done in his first term.

You get the mandates you ask for in elections. And Obama's only mandate is that he is not Mitt Romney.

This brings Obama well into his second term with no equity on issues.

Nor has he chosen to use his re-election as a pivot toward the center of the country, something that has baffled many Democrats.

Shifting to the middle was something that Bill Clinton did masterfully, with comprehensive welfare reform and a balanced-budget deal with a Republican-controlled House.

It almost seems as if Obama's defining political experience was to move left when he was battling Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries and that has become his default reaction every time he gets in trouble.

Such a shift has never worked for anyone in American politics beyond the context of a political primary — which explains why a Gallup poll last week showed Democrats losing ground on the economy and national security, two of Americans' biggest concerns.

The poll showed Democrats had lost more than 10 points on the question of which political party is best able to maintain prosperity in America. They also dropped on questions about which party is best able to manage national security and about overall problem-solving.

Democrats are worried about the lack of confidence in their brand and are beginning to admit what Republicans have been saying for a while — that the election and the re-election of Barack Obama were singular events, not the fundamental realignment that political pundits and flacks like to proclaim.

This column has often discussed the disconnection between Obama's Washington and America's Main Street, since evidence of a “wave” election began to form in the summer of 2009. In election after election since that time, Republicans have won seats or even whole legislative chambers across the country in areas they had no business winning, which led many political observers to believe the president was doomed to lose last year.

He didn't lose. Instead, Americans who showed up to vote (and many did not) gave him a pass for a host of reasons, none of which had to do with his experience, his handling of issues or crises, or even his governing style.

That was a gut punch for the Romney campaign — but it may turn into more of a sucker punch for Democrats who are looking forward to the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.

Obama's recent failings on Syria, and his ill-timed partisan speech following a mass murder not far from the White House, are not new behavioral patterns. This is who he has always been.

It just appears that his supporters have taken notice of that persona now, as they prepare for the next election cycle and realize that Democrats are much more fractured than Republicans.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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