// you’re reading...

Politics

Barack Obama & the Unease of Voting Independents

Richmond — When I received a phone call earlier this week asking me to have a frank discussion about the president’s problem with independents — specifically, as to how acute the issue is in Virginia, an important swing state — I wanted to share the sense of unease that I am hearing from my neighbors around the commonwealth and around the country.

But the call did not come from anyone affiliated with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or folks in Chicago. That call came from James Hohmann of Politico, who co-wrote a terrific piece about the president’s difficulty with independents in the commonwealth, and by extension around the country.

I hope the White House political department and the Obama campaign are doing work at least as in depth as Hohmann and his cowriter Glenn Thrush have done. Such yeomen’s work is necessary if the president is going to match his 2008 win of Virginia’s electoral votes in 2012.

To be blunt, if it is not, he will not win.

I have observed and been involved with politics for many years, but it does not take any special skill to note that Virginians are not quite happy. Their mood is unsettled. And, as many a politician has learned over the years, Virginians are an independent lot quite ready to  look for new leadership when they feel that is what the hour demands.

President Obama, a Democrat, won Virginia in 2008 for the very same reason Republican Bob McDonnell won the gubernatorial election in 2009: Independents vested the two campaigns with an overwhelming number of their votes. They were not being fickle by switching from a Democrat one November and choosing a Republican the next. No … they were being discerning.

People for decades have talked about my home state as a conservative bastion. And it is true that the temperament of Virginians is moderate conservative. But more than anything else Virginians are independent. They are smart. They consider. They weigh. They decide. They do not blindly follow any party or ideology. Instead they are deeply rooted in a political mindset that values prudence, pragmatism, and results.

That is what they saw from Barack Obama in 2008. Virginians — like many people around the country — thought they saw our home state’s values wrapped in the Obama message of hope and change. The people of my commonwealth hold practical ideals of the utmost importance, but that does not mean they do not dream, too. They wanted to dream with this president, so they gave him their votes at a time the economy was beginning to falter. Surely his middle-class success story would lead him to put their everyday concerns at the top of Washington’s agenda.

Three years later, I hear many Virginia independents wondering if that is indeed what happened. They are not sure. And to win in 2012, that is the concern that this president must address between now and November 6, 2012.

Is he doing that with his jobs plan? I, unfortunately, am not quite so sure.

Let’s say, as is possible, that the absolute worst happens legislatively with the jobs plan the president is touting: It does not pass. Then what? The message we seem to be getting from Washington is “nothing.” Instead of working to meet the dire needs of Americans during a time of widespread economic distress we will be in a permanent campaign of charges, attacks, and promises — with the voters being assured that DC will get back to work — finally — in January of 2013.

Will Virginia’s independents — or independents in any state — reward that as the result of the historic vote we cast in 2008? I am not sure I would answer that question is “yes.”

This is an election year in Virginia, we are electing all 140 members of the Virginia General Assembly. What is the mood of independents as they are contemplating those races?

The facts tell us that they are not ready to jump back on the Obama bandwagon yet. There are quite a few hotly contested legislative races that will hinge upon the decisions that independents make in the election booth. Control of the Senate of Virginia rests upon them. Where were the Democrats running in those races when the president’s bus tour rolled into southern and eastern Virginia?  Were they standing outside its doors ready to clasp hands with their presumptive 2012 standard bearer.  No. The House of Delegates Democratic leader has gone as far as to pay for a television advertisement to tell voters in his district he is not anything like Barack Obama. It is chock full of independent-minded people.

And he’s not alone in employing that tactic. My local newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatchrecently ran a story highlighting the members of the president’s own party who do not feel he is a help to them this fall.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is the canary in the mineshaft.

Most tellingly, though, where was the president’s political partner, Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine, while Obama makes his stops in a state where Kaine is waging a nip-and-tuck race? Not by Obama’s side.

Tim Kaine knows the risks involved with his close association with Obama. They both need each other’s votes. They cannot afford the perception that one is running away from the other. It is very tricky business, and no doubt Kaine and the president have discussed the unique ramifications of their tightly knit personal and professional relationships. They are friends. That dynamic is another reason 2012 will not be like 2008.

As I have said before, and will continue to say, I want to see this president reelected. I expressed that sentiment to him personally this summer. But without independent people like the ones who live in Virginia, it will be difficult for that to happen. Obama needs to reconnect with and give them back their desire for hopes and the ability to dream. It is not too late, but it must be done.

FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER @governorwilder