by Jordan Michael Smith
The chattering classes are all atwitter over the notion that President Obama is having trouble uniting the Democratic ranks. A widely-read Buzzfeed article argued this week that recent criticism by Cory Booker and Harold Ford Jr. of the Obama campaign’s Bain Capital ads are signs that the president “took over the country in 2008, but he never took full control of the Democratic Party.” Other critics are pointing to Tuesday night’s Democratic primary results in Kentucky and Arkansas—where more than 40% of the votes went to candidates other than Obama—as evidence that the president is unpopular in his own party.
Don’t believe a word of it. The reality is the opposite: Obama faces less dissension within party ranks than any other Democratic president running for reelection since Franklin Roosevelt in 1944.
Let’s work backwards. In 1996, Bill Clinton faced actual name-brand opposition—people who had nationwide recognition. Former Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey was the most prominent prospective Democratic opponent until health problems forced him to withdraw. Jimmy Griffin, the former mayor of Buffalo, was another would be-challenger, until he failed to place highly in New Hampshire. “Among progressives in Iowa, there’s a real frustration with Clinton,” one local activist told The Progressive magazine. “You hear disappointment in people’s voices. There’s a sense that he hasn’t handled the Presidency that well.”
In 1980, Jimmy Carter faced a challenge from Ted Kennedy so powerful that, in addition to winning several states inclusing New York, Kennedy actually outpolled the president nationally for much of the race. ‘Nuff said.
Remember President Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 reelection campaign? Of course not—it never happened. Thanks largely to Vietnam, Johnson was so unpopular within the Democratic Party that he removed himself from contention rather than risk a humiliating primary loss.
That leaves us with Harry Truman in 1948. Truman famously eked out an election victory that seemed improbable to many—so improbable that newspapers actually printed editions prematurely declaring his Republican opponent John Dewey the winner. There was a big reason most observers thought Truman was doomed: He was not well-liked even among Democrats. A group of conservative Dems, incensed by Truman’s support for civil rights, abandoned the president to form a new segregationist party, the Dixiecrats, led by Strom Thurmond. Meanwhile, he also had to deal with the left-wing Progressive Party, led by Roosevelt’s former vice-president, Henry Wallace.
But what about ordinary voters? You only need to look at the polls to see that, historcally speaking, Obama is remarkably popular among members of his own party. “On average, Mr. Obama’s approval is higher than expected among Democrats and independents,” respected polling analyst Nate Silver of The New York Times wrote earlier this month. “Among first-term presidents, his performance versus expectations within his own party is exceeded only by Reagan’s performance.”
To be sure, these are polarized times. Polls suggest that Mitt Romney, too, has consolidated Republican support quickly—and far faster than many observers predicted during his drawn out primary campaign. But it doesn’t much matter whether you attribute it to the skills of the Obama campaign or to the wider political environment. The fact is that by any fair historical comparison, Obama is doing remarkably well with Democrats.
So, please: Don’t buy into the hype pushed by Republicans desperate to sow dissension within Democratic ranks, and by some liberals who fret that the president can’t rally his party around him. He already has. Just ask Jimmy Carter.
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon, and a regular contributor to Lean Forward.