Guest post by Frankie SturmFrankie Sturm is communications director at the Truman National Security Project and a free-lance journalist. This piece originally appeared at The Huffington Post.Barack Obama is the LeBron James of the Democratic Party. At least when it comes to national security. Republicans have dominated Democrats on the security question for decades, but according to a new survey by Democracy Corps and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, President Obama is relegating that long-standing Republican edge to the history books -- for now.
Obama's personal numbers on national security are mind-boggling. Although derided by his critics as a naïve idealist in a dangerous world, 55% of the public believes President Obama is increasing American security. More than 60% of respondents approve of the president's handling of Afghanistan, Iraq, piracy, representing America abroad, leading America’s military, fighting terrorism, and improving America's standing in the world. Most shocking -- voters give Obama higher marks on national security (64%) than on overall performance (58%).
President Obama's cachet has redounded to the Democratic Party as a whole. After suffering a 10-40 point gap over the last forty years, Democrats are now statistically tied with Republicans when respondents are asked which party is better for national security. In terms of working with allies, increasing respect for the United States, and "foreign policy," Democrats enjoy large double-digit margins over Republicans.
Nevertheless, we're better off keeping the champagne on ice. These results warrant little more than cautious optimism. Republicans tower over Democrats on "ensuring a strong military" by an overwhelming 18 points. In terms of patriotism, Republicans carry the day by 17 points. Moreover, it's unclear whether positive perceptions of Democrats have a solid foundation outside of President Obama's own popularity. While 46% of respondents have a favorable opinion of Democrats (it’s only 28% for Republicans), President Obama gets 59%. So we really don't know where Democrats' popularity stops and President Obama's begins.
That's why Barack Obama is starting to look like the LeBron James of the Democratic Party. The Cleveland Cavaliers have finally put together a strong enough supporting cast to bring an NBA title within the realm of possibility, but it still took a 3-point buzzer beater from LeBron for the Cavs to claim victory over the Orlando Magic in game two of their ongoing playoff series. A win is a win, but for the long-term prospect of the Cleveland Cavaliers -- and the Democratic Party -- this is a problem.Political gains that are heavily dependent on a single personality are easy to reverse. George W. Bush was America's most popular man for almost a year after 9/11. When his stock fell, so did that of the Republican Party. On the flip side, once the public comes to associate a political party with a particular issue, it's hard to disabuse the notion. Republicans have instant credibility on taxes and keeping the military strong. Democrats are easily trusted on education and the environment. Now that the two parties are tied on national security, the battle for issue ownership on that critical questions begins in earnest.
But Democrats also need to build their own brand as a party because, popularity aside, President Obama needs it. Watching the Democratic Senate vote 90-6 against allocating funds for the closure of Guantanamo Bay was an exercise in embarrassment for party and president alike. The criticism that President Obama has not outlined a real plan for shutting down Gitmo is perfectly legit; the spectacle of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid parroting Republican talking points on "releasing" the detainees is not.
Such incidents strengthen the popular notion that Democrats are fickle and lack clear beliefs, which is arguably the chief reason why Democrats have fallen short on national security for so long. After all, if a you can’t follow through on an issue that has motivated your party (such as closing Gitmo) and stand up to a little political heat, how are you going to stand up to al Qaeda or Iran? For the American public, the answer to that question is very simple: you're not going to stand up to them, so we'll go with the other guy.
Popular presidents transform parties and redefine political eras. FDR did so for the Democrats in the 1930s, while Reagan did the same for Republicans in the 1980s. President Obama and the Democrats of today have a similar opportunity to transform the age-old perception that the Democratic Party is not to be trusted on national security. So far so good. But so far isn't good enough.
Labels: Barack Obama, Democratic Party, Democrats, George W. Bush, Harry Reid, national security, Republicans, sports, U.S. Senate