Obama’s New Political Reality Is Bad News for Dems in 2014

by Stuart Rothenberg May 16, 2013 · 9:37 AM EDT

Forget background checks and gun control, divisions within the GOP on immigration, and Republican intransigence on negotiating a budget deal with the president. The current triple play of Benghazi, the IRS and now the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ phone records has the potential to be a political game changer for 2014.

It’s hard to overstate the potential significance of the past week. What we are witnessing is nothing less than a dramatic reversal of the nation’s political narrative — from how bad the Republican brand is and how President Barack Obama is going to mobilize public opinion against the GOP in the midterm elections to whether the Obama administration has become so arrogant that it believes it can stonewall Congress and the public.

The series of revelations presents an unflattering picture of an administration that just 10 days ago looked poised and confident. Now it looks out of touch and unresponsive.

The danger for Obama, of course, is that many Americans will start to doubt his administration’s veracity and values. If that happens — and for now it is only a danger, not an inevitability — then the president could well turn into a serious liability for Democrats in next year’s elections.

The recent revelations seem to confirm some of the complaints and accusations coming from some of the GOP’s most conservative elements, and that could both damage the Democratic brand and improve the Republicans’.

In the near term, the controversies could help the candidacies of Gabriel Gomez, the Republican nominee in the June 25 Massachusetts Senate special election, and even Ken Cuccinelli, the presumptive GOP nominee for governor of Virginia. Given the administration’s problems, voters are more likely now than they were two weeks ago to use this year’s contests to send a message of dissatisfaction to the White House.

Longer term, it isn’t clear whether the current controversies will hurt the president and his party in 2014. But if the administration’s problems linger or even grow, Democratic enthusiasm could wane, depressing turnout in next year’s elections. Weaker turnout would have serious ramifications for Democratic candidates, particularly in swing and red districts and states. It could also hurt party recruiting and lead to a flurry of retirements.

It’s unlikely that the three controversies will pass quickly. The IRS scandal, in particular, is likely to linger, as drips of news and allegations come out over the next few weeks.

The White House is likely to have to spend many hours and much energy responding to questions and generally dealing with these issues, making it more difficult for the president to push his legislative agenda. If history is any guide, that could add to the impression of an embattled president who is merely trying to keep his administration afloat.

And that definitely is not the message that Democratic strategists have been hoping would carry the party to a successful 2014 midterm elections.