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Uphill battle awaits slumping Democrats

WASHINGTON – The annual State of the Union message is still the best political show on earth. But as President Obama scans the chairs at the joint session of Congress Tuesday night, he can’t escape the foreboding that a year from now both houses, not just one, will be controlled by Republicans.

Some retiring congressional Democrats offer a striking pattern of demoralization.

In New York’s North Country, Democrat Bill Owens has had enough time in the House minority. His is a swing district – a rarity in our people’s republic.

California’s George Miller, a leading liberal Democrat, isn’t betting his party will regain the majority, which would put him back as chairman of the powerful Education and Workforce Committee.

Buffalo-born Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., is quitting. The possibility that a Democratic victory would make him an appropriations subcommittee chairman is just too remote.

More Democratic departures are reportedly on the way. The Democrats need a turnover of 17 Republican-held seats to take back the House. With each passing week, that hill gets steeper. They need to retain at least six Democratic seats in the Senate to keep the majority there – and that is far from assured, with Senate incumbents in Alaska, Louisiana and Arkansas facing challenges from Republicans in conservative precincts.

The Democrat are in a funk, not because of something they did since ramming though Obamacare. No one here has been able to do anything but respond to the mail, play small ball and raise millions from special interests.

They are in the dumps because the leader of the party has parked his charisma somewhere, even with liberals. Last week’s Quinnipiac University poll tells a grim story. Not only is Congress scoring historic lows with voters, but Quinnipiac thought it was now relevant to ask whether Obama is “paying attention” to his job. When was the last time a national poll asked that about a president?

Obama scored a net negative on that one, with 47 percent saying he isn’t and 45 percent saying he is. By a margin of 53 percent to 42 percent, responders said Obama is not competent to be president. Obama is a net negative on trustworthiness, handling of the economy, health care and foreign policy.

The administration does reasonably well on dealing with terrorism. But the rest of the Democratic standard-bearer’s platform – trust, ability and devotion to the hard work of running a government – is a brutal mix for a party hoping to reassert itself in a midterm election.

Little of what the president says Tuesday night will have a positive bearing on this year’s midterms. For all Obama’s fuss about income inequality, the Democrats’ House and Senate races will be largely local. The underlying theme of the their campaigns will be about surviving Obama.

The Republicans, meanwhile, may have gotten the drift: Shy away from hot-button themes, triggers like Social Security, the budget and the debt limit. Run on regional issues such as Obama’s blockage of the Keystone XL pipeline. Such tactics, if continued, will keep Obama’s devoted friends in the Washington and Manhattan media away from the play in regional contests.

Which opens to the president the course he likes best: talk. And in the first remarks Obama made this month, he handed the Republicans an issue. Returning from vacation, he boasted that he has “a pen and a phone.” This is a renewal of his threat to govern devoid of Congress through arm-twisting and by executive order. A question, then, for all voters this November: Do you really want to give this man more power or contain him?