A weird malaise is haunting the Democratic Party. That's a risky word to use, I know. It's freighted with bad history and carries unfortunate implications. So let's be clear: President Barack Obama is not Jimmy Carter, not even close. And Obama's speech on Tuesday was nothing like Carter's 1979 "malaise speech" in which Carter never actually used that word. Obama gave a good and sensible speech that was not a home run.
What's odd is that Obama was seen as needing a home run. This is where the Democratic malaise comes in.
Democrats should feel a lot better than they do. They enacted a health care bill that had been their dream for more than sixty years. They pulled the country out of a terrifying economic spiral. They are on the verge of passing the biggest reform of Wall Street since the New Deal. The public has identified enemies that are typically seen as Republican allies: oil companies and big bankers. And given the Republicans' past policies, the Gulf oil spill is at least as much their problem as Obama's.
On top of this, the GOP seems to be doing all it can to make itself unelectable, veering far to the right and embracing a Tea Party movement that, at its extremes, preaches the need for revolution. That sounds more like the old New Left than a reinvigorated conservatism. Oh yes, and can you think of one thing Republicans stand for right now other than cutting spending? Never mind that they are conspicuously vague about what they'd cut.
Yet it is Democrats who are petrified, uncertain and hesitant—and this was true before the oil spill made matters worse. Obama's bold rhetoric about "the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels" was not matched by specifics because he knows that nearly a dozen Senate Democrats are skittish about acting. Why does it so often seem that Republicans are full of passionate intensity while Democrats lack all conviction?
The month's most important document may prove to be a poll done for National Public Radio by the Democratic firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republicans at Public Opinion Strategies. In the seventy most competitive House districts, sixty of them held by Democrats, the pollsters concluded that the Democrats "face a daunting environment in 2010."
"The results are a wake-up call for Democrats whose losses in the House could well exceed thirty seats," they declared. Two findings convey the whole: "Sixty-two percent of Republicans in Democratic districts describe themselves as very enthusiastic about the upcoming election" compared with only 37 percent of Democrats. And: "By 57 to 37 percent, voters in these sixty Democratic seats believe that President Obama's economic policies have produced record deficits while failing to slow job losses."
Paranoia is striking deep among Democrats, and this poll will only aggravate this disorder. In those competitive districts, Democratic incumbents will be tempted to hunker down, distance themselves from the president, urge their leaders to be cautious, and run for the hills to seek refuge from a looming Republican wave.
But the numbers in the NPR survey are so bad that Democrats might pause before becoming lemmings. There is something preposterous about how the administration and congressional Democrats have lost every major public argument that they should be winning.
They lost it on a stimulus bill that clearly lifted the economy, as Alan Blinder, the former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, argued persuasively in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. They are losing it on the health-care bill, a big improvement on the current system enacted through a process that made it look like a tar ball on an Alabama beach. They are losing it on the deficit even as it was Republicans who cut taxes twice while the Bush administration was starting two wars.
Obama is often criticized for being too professorial. The irony is that Republicans who have little to say about how to solve the nation's major problems are dominating the country's underlying philosophical narrative. From Plaquemines Parish to Wall Street, we are seeing what happens when government takes too hands-off an approach to private economic actors. Yet the GOP is managing to sell the idea that the big issue in this election should be—government spending.
Professor Obama and his allies ought to be ashamed of this. The cure for malaise, defined as "a sensation of exhaustion or inadequate energy to accomplish usual activities," is to have a self-confident sense of purpose, and to act boldly in its pursuit.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).