The Worst State of the Union Analysis Yet

Throughout the 2012 election, the think-tanker and columnist Bill Galston was a fount of much accidental mirth. If he predicted an outcome—the Democrats giving up on Ohio, the Bain attacks backfiring and helping Romney—the exact opposite of what he’d just predicted would play out. After the election, Galston disappeared from the New Republic and replaced Thomas Frank as the liberal voice at the Wall Street Journal, where he was in no danger of being read.

But he can still be quoted! In one of the umpteen National Journal responses to the State of the Union, reporter James Oliphant* talks to Galston and finds a man concerned with backlash to the president’s executive actions.

“There is some evidence that the American people are tired of the bickering and want to figure out a way of moving forward together,” said William Galston, the former Clinton adviser now at the Brookings Institution. Obama’s go-it-alone message, he said, could instead sound to the public like an admission that he’s thrown in the towel and given up on trying to work with an admittedly obstructionist GOP.

The belief inside the White House that Obama needs to show a more aggressive side may be a misread of the political environment, said Galston, who attributes Obama’s slide in popularity both to the stop-and-start recovery and problems with the Affordable Care Act. The latter means that voters may be wary about Obama’s pledge to do more. “There is an enormous amount of skepticism about the ability of government to advance its ends,” he said.

Only a few grafs later does Oliphant cite a number—the Washington Post poll that finds “independents were split 49 percent to 49 percent” on whether the president should use executive actions if he’s unable to get a bill through Congress. If most Democrats support it, and half of independents support it, what’s the risk of backlash? It has a little to do with Obama’s agency and lots to do with where the 2014 election is being fought.

Look, here’s Gallup’s map of Obama’s approval from state to state. In 11 states, it’s at or below 35 percent. Five of those states—West Virginia (25.1 percent), South Dakota (31.7 percent), Montana (33.1 percent), Alaska (33.5 percent), and Arkansas (34.9 percent)—are currently represented by Democrats in the Senate, but holding elections this year. A sixth state, Kentucky (35.1 percent), is represented by a Republican, and Democrats are targeting it, but Republicans are confident that the president’s unpopularity will save them.

This is a structural problem for Democrats. If the key 2014 battlegrounds were in, say, Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania, they’d be in better shape. But they’re trying to salvage what they can in deep-red territory and define their opponents as unacceptably hostile to old people (Medicare vouchers!) and rural interests (farm bill!). Democrats can bang on about the uselessness of Congress, but voters in these states are generally ready to elect anyone to Congress provided he will work against Barack Obama. A higher minimum wage, to name the main issue Obama’s acting on, is more popular than the president.

*Pet peeve time: Oliphant leads by reminding readers of Bill Clinton’s “the era of big government is over” speech. Everyone forgets that the line was a sop to reporters and Republicans in a speech about how the crazy GOP was holding the debt limit hostage.