Obama signals leftward shift after electorate shifts to right

When it comes to detachment from reality, one can run the spectrum from missing a memo to full-on denial. Barack Obama firmly planted his flag in Camp Denial almost immediately after the election, claiming that the message from Election Day was bipartisanship, and that he’s paying more attention to the people who didn’t vote. By Sunday, Obama allowed that “we got beat,” but said that he had no plans to divert from his agenda even after his second midterm disaster. The agenda wasn’t what got rejected, Obama claimed, but “a failure of politics” from the White House.

The denial continues, at least rhetorically:

President Obama has taken significant steps to the left since his party’s devastating losses in the midterm elections.

In a surprise, he announced a major deal on climate change with China during a trip to Beijing Tuesday. That followed another unanticipated move — a Monday statement pressuring the Federal Communications Commission to adopt new net neutrality rules for the Internet.

The moves are helping to rally a dispirited Democratic base while re-establishing Obama’s political leadership after he was sidelined during the midterms.

“He’s at his best when his back is against the wall,” said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum. “Jeremiah Wright in 2008, Scott Brown’s election in 2009, after the first debate in 2012 — he comes back and tends to fight pretty hard.”

“He’s a fourth-quarter player, and he’s in the fourth quarter of his presidency,” Shrum added.

Perhaps, but Shrum forgets one thing. Those were campaigns, not governance. This administration has never understood the difference between them. This also ignores how Obama came back from those “fourth quarter” predicaments — by appealing to the center, not the hard Left. Obama cast himself as a post-racial politician eager to leave sharp divides in the rear-view mirror after Hillary Clinton’s campaign dug up the Jeremiah Wright tapes, and painted Mitt Romney as a conservative extremist and elitist (!) after the debate debacle two years ago.

The Jonathan Gruber tapes may make that kind of appeal moot now, but that’s not to say that an appeal to the extreme now is the antidote. It’s a hair–of-the-dog prescription that’s liable to make things a lot worse. Republicans scored a knockout in the midterms by painting Democrats as willing tools of a crypto-extremist President, and now Obama wants to validate their argument beyond all doubt.

Obama engaged in similar denial after the first midterm debacle. He refused to follow the example set by Bill Clinton of triangulation, opting instead to double down against a hostile Congress. That worked, at least somewhat; Obama got re-elected, but with millions fewer votes and a decline in the Electoral College, the first modern president to win under those circumstances. His coalition had already begun evaporating at that point, and has all but disappeared by now. Without Obama at the top of the ticket in 2016, Democrats may be left with a vast wreckage and the kind of intramural split that crippled Republicans in 2008 and 2012.

Obama’s strategy also writes off the one race still left:

Obama may soon have to tackle another issue that is a flash point between his environmental base and many lawmakers: approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport heavy crude from Canada’s oil sands region to Gulf Coast refineries.

Senate Democrats are taking up a bill authorizing the permit as a way to boost the political fortunes of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is facing a Dec. 6 runoff against Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.); the House is preparing to pass its own bill on the subject Thursday.

Aides say Obama is prepared to veto the bill–exercising a power that he has used only twice before.

Not that many other Democrats are giving Landrieu a shot, either, as TPM’s Sahil Kapur reported:

“The Democrats on the national level are basically throwing in the towel on Mary. That’s how people are reading it here,” said Ron Nabonne, a New Orleans-based attorney and political consultant for over 30 years. …

A former Louisiana Democratic operative said Landrieu’s goose was cooked.

“She just can’t win. It’s just not mathematically possible,” said the Democrat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The way you win statewide in Louisiana is you get 95 percent of the black vote, a good African-American turnout, and 30 to 33 percent of the white vote. And she’s at 20! … Where does she gain? If you put her at 23 percent now, how does she gain 10 points with white voters in a month?” …

“Keystone pipeline? Gimme a break,” the former Democratic operative said. “C’mon. That’s not gonna get you there.”

Two more years of this kind of refusal to listen to the electorate spells trouble for Democrats, and even more vindication for Republicans. If Obama insists on drifting even farther to the Left while issuing veto after veto, those same voters will conclude that it’s the White House that’s the problem, and not the other end of Capitol Hill — and that will burnish the governance credentials of the GOP. Fewer and fewer voters will align themselves with a tone-deaf administration that keeps looking more and more incompetent. Obama and his advisors should worry less about the Keystone pipeline and more about their Keystone Kops image.