Obama's populist pitch fizzles

President Obama’s populist economic pitch is fizzling.

The White House hoped to hammer Republicans this year on an array of pocketbook issues centered on hiking the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, an effort meant to appeal to independents and rally Democrats to the polls. 

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Three months in, Obama’s approval ratings are flailing in the low 40s, and Senate Democrats haven’t even been able to unify their 55 members on a minimum wage bill.

That’s made it tougher to contrast the positions of Democrats with Republicans in an election year that is shaping up to be about the healthcare law and Obama.

“You always want a contrast. It’s always better to have votes to run on, and there hasn’t been a lot to run on so far,” said Jim Manley, a former spokesman to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who is now with QGA Public Affairs. “Republicans have done a good job stalling the debate on the Hill.”

Senate Democrats, according to independent projections, could easily lose the six seats needed to give the GOP a majority of the upper chamber. And House Democrats, who once talked up winning back the chamber, could now easily lose seats.

Blaming the GOP for the lack of a Senate vote on the minimum wage sidesteps the point that Democrats themselves haven’t unified around a single bill. For example, Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), a vulnerable Democrat running this year, has balked at raising the minimum wage to $10.10.

There’s been some talk of pushing a Senate vote on the minimum wage back into the week after next, though a leadership aide stressed that Democrats still wanted to bring the measure to the floor next week.

Democrats acknowledge their message hasn’t caught fire with voters.

But they also insist that economic pitch is the best they’ve got to counter the consistent Republican drumbeat on ObamaCare, and that this brand of populism worked in Obama’s 2012 reelection over GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

They argue Russia’s incursion into Ukraine has taken them off message, and that they still have more than seven months to rally.

Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, added that other vulnerable incumbents — like Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) — are going to have a different spin on the party’s broader pitch on the economy and the middle class.

“Every one of our Senate candidates has a message that is unique to them and their states,” Barasky said.

Still, Democrats face a slew of political headwinds.

While the minimum wage hike polls well, voters don’t have confidence in the economy and believe the country is headed in the wrong direction — a dangerous combination for the party holding the White House.

On top of that, Democrats historically don’t turn out as well for midterm elections as Republicans, and the party in the Oval Office generally fares badly in a president’s sixth year.

Senior Democrats have also acknowledged that they need to embrace the positives in ObamaCare, even though the law is no more popular than it was when the party got soundly defeated in 2010.

“We’ll put forward our plans on jobs and the economy. Republicans can keep talking about the Affordable Care Act,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “And we’ll see where we go. We think the Affordable Care Act is an important part of economic security.”

With that in mind, some Democratic aides have said they are concerned the populist economic message is too “small ball,” as one put it, and that focusing on issues like immigration reform might do a better job of exciting voters.

“The populist message was so much easier when you had a villain like Romney,” the aide said about the 2012 nominee, a former private equity executive worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Democrats are seeking other avenues to sharpen their message. Reid and other party leaders have increasingly trained their fire on Charles and David Koch, the industrialist billionaire brothers who fund a range of conservative causes.

Democrats are casting the Kochs — and the GOP, by extension — as actively working against the middle class, though some have also speculated those efforts are aimed as much at ginning up fundraising as anything else.

Republicans fully scoff at the Democratic message, and their chances this November.

Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told The Hill that the current Democratic efforts miss the mark on the two important issues for the midterms — the healthcare law and jobs. The Congressional Budget Office has said the minimum wage hike would cost around 500,000 jobs, though it also said the proposal would help many more workers.

As for the Democratic focus on the Kochs, “I don’t understand their strategy,” Moran said.

Some question whether enough voters know about the Kochs for their demonization to be effective politics. A new George Washington University Battleground poll found that about half of likely voters don’t know who the Kochs are.

Matt Bennett of Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank, said the party should put a greater emphasis on growth and opportunity for the middle class, rather than an income inequality message he says doesn’t resonate.

“When you think about what middle-class families are struggling with, it’s that a middle-class wage doesn’t buy a middle-class life anymore,” said Bennett. “That’s really at the heart of what people are worried about.”

But Markos Moulitsas, a grassroots progressive who has been sparring for months with Third Way, said people understand income inequality “at the gut level and feel it every day,” and that the Koch brothers were a crucial part of that message.

Even so, Moulitsas, who also writes a column for The Hill, acknowledged that 2014 might not be the year for Democrats.

“Will this message be enough to overcome off-year Democratic base turnout woes?” Moulitsas told The Hill in an email. “Who knows? But it’s the right message for the Democratic Party. And it’s the message that will deliver ultimate victory in 2016.”