What’s at Stake for Obama in 2014

His legacy may rest on whether Democrats can run diverse candidates and increase voter turnout.

President Barack Obama shakes hands. (Jim Watson/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama shakes hands. (Jim Watson/Getty Images)

(The Root) — It is no surprise that President Barack Obama, who has already faced improbable odds and still managed to do the impossible, will soon face one of his greatest challenges yet. 

The 2014 midterms are perhaps the most important election of Obama’s presidency, offering the last opportunity to circumvent an obstinate GOP selfishly committed to his failure. But given what’s at stake — maintaining the Senate while attempting to take back the House, with its high number of gerrymandered Republican districts — the Democratic Party will need to galvanize African-American, Hispanic and youth voters of all races at levels not seen since 2008. Furthermore, Democrats must find qualified candidates who reflect the rainbow coalition that elected Obama in the first place. 

The recent GOP media frenzy — currently fueling pseudo-scandals and hurling accusations of misconduct and incompetence — is the latest manifestation of a Republican commitment to playing dirty politics. Benghazi-gate is designed to keep the conservative base angry and engaged, while the Associated Press subpoena affair pits the media against the White House in a head-to-head battle, an ideal strategy for a GOP that has consistently accused the “mainstream media” of being too favorable to the president.

Likewise, the IRS debacle is a shrewd effort to ensure that conservative and Tea Party super PACs like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS — which enjoys the coveted 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status — will maintain an unbridled ability to raise unlimited funds, campaigning in key legislative districts to defeat liberal Democratic candidates and moderate Republican alternatives for congressional, state and local positions.

If the Republicans win the 2014 midterms, the result may lead to a wave of newly elected right-wing extremists — like those who gave Republicans the House in 2010 — who will continue the GOP’s mission of obstructing key issues like gun control, immigration reform, universal health care and women’s reproductive freedom. Worst of all, the GOP’s efforts may succeed if the historical trend of low voter turnout in midterm elections manifests itself again in 2014.

“I don’t think Democrats understand how difficult it will be to mobilize black and brown voters when President Obama is not at the top of the ticket,” said veteran Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who spoke exclusively to The Root about the 2014 midterms. “And we need a strategy. Not just talking points.” 

Cummings, who has spent the past few months working tirelessly to get a gun-control bill passed — only to see his efforts thwarted by the Senate’s Republican minority — is especially concerned. “I hadn’t considered how the Republicans are playing a long game, but they are,” he said. “The midterms will matter even more now; otherwise GOP obstinance spells doom for the president’s second-term agenda and his legislative legacy.”

Voter-participation rates from the 2010 midterms offer reasons for both hope and cautious action. 

Key to Obama’s 2008 victory and his subsequent “shellacking” in 2010 was the youth vote — and African-American youths in particular. Voters ages 18 to 29 helped catapult Obama to office by making up 18 percent of voters overall, according to a Tufts University study (pdf). By the 2010 midterms, that figure had imploded to 9 percent.

In 2008, young African Americans dominated the landscape among youth voters, showing the strongest turnout of any racial or ethnic group since 1972, according to the Tufts study. Hardly discussed is the fact that this “Obama effect” actually continued into the midterms, with young black voters delivering a 27.5 percent participation rate, up from 24 percent in 2006. By comparison, young whites experienced a dramatic decrease, going from 28 percent turnout in 2006 to 24.9 percent in 2010.