Ebola, Wall Street stock slide deepen '14 gloom for Dems

The Democrats' midterm prospects took a beating this week as concerns over the Ebola virus and a jittery economy churned up countless grim headlines and darkened an already dissatisfied national mood.

Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have long charged the administration with mismanaging crises, have been quick to pounce on the Ebola issue, saying President Obama's team has not been aggressive enough in the face of the threat.

Meanwhile, a plummeting stock market has hit the half of the adult population that owns shares directly, or through retirement accounts and other investment vehicles. The stock slide also undercuts the White House’s preferred narrative of an economy that is slowly but surely becoming stronger.

Democrats have defended the White House with vigor, asserting that the Republicans' strategy has always been to blame Obama for any ill the country suffers during his tenure. 

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Still, the current spate of high-profile troubles reverberate ominously for the man in the White House and for his party colleagues in competitive midterm races — a dynamic even some Democrats will reluctantly concede.

"It's a truism that when things go your way, you sometimes get undeserved credit. And when things go against you, you oftentimes can get undeserved blame," Rep. Peter WelchPeter WelchDems delay vote on picking leaders Left emboldened for post-Obama era Yahoo hack spurs push for legislation MORE (D-Vt.) said Thursday. "So there will be an emotional and psychological attachment of blame for the stock market, Ebola, influenza, wild weather.

"It's politics," Welch added. "There will be folks who make the argument."

The comments came following a House hearing on the administration's handling of the Ebola threat, during which Republicans pounded administration health officials for what the lawmakers said was a bungled response to the epidemic that originated in West Africa.

The Republicans are increasingly urging the administration to prohibit travel to the United States for the roughly 13,000 foreign visa holders living in the countries where the disease is most widespread — a strategy the administration has opposed for fear of exacerbating the epidemic.

"Administration officials still refuse to consider any travel restrictions for the more than 1,000 travelers a week entering the U.S. from Ebola hot zones," said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a member of the subcommittee who attended Thursday's hearing, said the criticism is inevitable coming from a GOP that has hammered Obama on practically every issue since the day he stepped into the White House.

"I don't care what happens, in this country or anywhere in the world, it's probably the president's fault, according to the Republicans," Schakowsky said. "And so of course we're going to hear those kinds of criticisms."

Schakowsky declined to speculate on how the recent headlines would affect the Democrats at the polls next month, but she acknowledged the political nature of the Ebola threat heading into the midterms. 

"Obviously, this is a big issue; it's a front page story," she said, "and they [Republicans] have offered what they seem to believe is the single magic bullet to solving the problem, which I don't think it is."

Meanwhile, a volatile stock market is playing havoc with investors’ emotions and contributing to a larger feeling of economic uncertainty ahead of the elections.

On Wednesday, the Dow Jones industrial average at one point plunged 450 points. Even after a recovery of sorts, it closed down 173 points for the day. Both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq posted losses, too. And the Dow has dropped 6 percent in less than one month.

Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) was quick to note that the Dow has roughly doubled during Obama’s time in the White House. Still, he acknowledged that, in the short window left before the elections, this week's sharp downturn has not done the Democrats any good. 

"Wall Street's not helpful," Green said simply.

The fall comes despite new indications that the overall economy is indeed improving. Labor Department officials announced earlier this month that unemployment had dropped to 5.9 percent in September, a six-year low.

"Fair or not, Americans will blame the party holding the White House for the lack of growth," said Lindsey M. Piegza, a chief economist at Sterne Agee.

Piegza said that "given the fragility of the U.S. economy, external and international volatility … [including] the recent outbreak of Ebola outside of Africa simply exacerbate the perceived and apparent weakness in the domestic economy, for which the incumbent power spells disaster."

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative American Action Forum, echoed that message.

"The president gets blamed for everything — fair or not," said Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential run. "Republicans are trying to tie everything to him. And this market volatility is another piece of bad news. People don't like turbulent markets."

Former Clinton economic adviser Robert Shapiro pushed back against the notion that market volatility would harm Democrats at the polls, however.

"Most voters own few, if any, stocks directly," he said. "[But] they are pretty acutely aware of how fast the economy and jobs are growing — on both of those accounts, the economy looks like a net positive for incumbents, especially Democrats.

"A sustained market crash would be bad news for the country and for incumbents, especially Democrats," he added, "but there's no evidence of that occurring at this time." 

White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to weigh in on the political ramifications of the stock market fall, telling reporters Thursday that he's "not in a position to play market analyst."

He said that officials are "concerned" about the economic data suggesting a decline in economic growth overseas.

"At the same time, it underscores the strength of the American economy that, even in the face of some declines that we’re seeing in other markets or in other economies, the U.S. economy continues to gain strength," Earnest said.

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) cited another economic factor that could benefit the Democrats: falling gas prices.

"If you get gas prices down under $3, which is very likely at this point, it can be a countervailing factor," he said. 

— Justin Sink contributed.