Have Demographics “Liberated” Obama?

I’m always interested in Ron Browstein’s analysis, and his latest National Journal column grapples with one of the central issues of this stage of the Obama administration: has the electoral superiority of Obama’s “coalition of the ascendent” finally “liberated” him and his party from the dependence on moderate-to-conservative white swing voters–to oversimplify massively, the “Reagan Democrats”–that has inhibited past straightfowardly progressive messages and policies?

In 2012, Obama lost more than three-fifths of noncollege whites and whites older than 45; he carried only one-third of noncollege white men, the worst performance of any Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale was buried in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide. Yet Obama nonetheless won a solid victory by posting strong numbers with minorities (a combined 80 percent), the millennials (60 percent), and college-educated white women (46 percent overall and more in many key states); moreover, each of those groups expanded its share of the total vote. (For the first time, white women with college degrees cast more votes last year than white men without them.)….

The result is that the president, to a striking extent, appears unshackled from the fear of alienating conservative white voters that has shaped the way the party has governed since cultural and foreign policy issues (such as civil rights and the Vietnam War) shattered the economically based New Deal coalition in the 1960s.

There’s a lot more to read, and aside from quoting a few people who think the new and more liberal coalition is fragile, Brownstein does note the “Obama coalition” cannot produce regular congressional majorities, a structural problem that involves the small-state domination of the Senate, gerrymandering and “vote distribution” in the House, and the midterm turnout advantage of the GOP that isn’t going away any time soon.

But there’s another question that is equally important: does Obama really have any choice? Will a more “moderate” policy direction or message produce anything other than confusion at a time of asymetrical polarization when there is virtually nothing he can do to force Republicans into serious negotiations? And even if he somehow can, will that produce policies that actually help the country, or just create an incoherent and self-canceling mess?

I’m increasingly convinced that Democratic centrists would be better advised to promote their favored policies on the merits instead of as bipartisanship-bait, which at the moment just is not a credible approach. And if Democrats do indeed need to improve their performance among elements outside the “Obama coalition”–and in the short term, they do if they ever want a sizable congressional majority and control of a majority of states–they should focus on what these voters actually do and do not favor instead of assuming “moderate” rhetoric will do the trick.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.