Hey Obama—now what?

What went wrong for the Democrats, what to expect now, and why Obama isn’t done yet

Mid-term madness

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/ Jason Henry/The New York Times

When he strode into office in the middle of two wars and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the question was whether Barack Obama could rally the nation behind him and emerge as a historic leader, or whether the crisis would destroy him altogether. The answer is becoming clearer. While he can take credit for steering the country away from a full-fledged depression, he hasn’t emerged a greater figure for it. He’s been more like an incredible shrinking president.

“I can’t stop the war / I can’t save the sons and daughters / I can’t change the world and make things fair,” crooned Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow in a downbeat anthem at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, the satirical gathering by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert that drew hundreds of thousands of Democrats to Washington’s National Mall on Oct. 30. It was hardly “Hope and Change.”

Indeed, “hopeless” might be a more fitting term after the stunning but expected defeat suffered by the Democrats in Tuesday’s mid-term elections. Obama’s party had previously held the House of Representatives by 255 seats to the Republicans’ 178. By the time Maclean’s went to press on Tuesday night, the GOP had decisively won control of the House. In the Senate, Democrats appeared to have held on to a shrunken majority, but one far short of the 60 votes needed to overcome Republicans’ use of filibusters to block votes on legislation and nominees. And across the United States, Republicans made huge gains in gubernatorial races, all the while raising the spectre of the 2012 general election—and that the United States might be witnessing its first one-term presidency since George Bush Sr.’s two decades ago.

In retrospect, it may have been all over for the Democrats by mid-2009. For the first six months of Obama’s administration, polls showed his party was ahead in the match-up with Republicans. But by the “Tea Party summer” of angry town halls and debates over “death panels,” support for the Republicans had surged, while the Democrats limped along, bleeding public support. It was clear last January how much of an upswing the GOP was on when Republican candidate Scott Brown won the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts.

While Republicans became more energized, Democrats became increasingly demoralized. A clear sign of the coming mid-term disaster for Obama’s party could be heard in the comments of some of the voters who descended on Washington for the rally four days before the vote. “I don’t think Obama was ready. I don’t think he was experienced enough,” said Karen Harshman. A 54-year-old retired school teacher from Hagerstown, Md., she carried a sign that said: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself—and spiders.” She said she was “very, very disappointed” in Obama, and was not sure she would vote for him again when he comes up for re-election in 2012. “He made promises that were nearly impossible to keep, and then the people were not satisfied,” she observed.

Another Obama voter, consultant Levi Kronberg from Kensington, Md., agreed. “From campaigning on hope and change, he had nowhere to go but down,” Kronberg, 23, said. He was disappointed that Obama gave the health care bill to Congress to design. “I don’t think he was competent enough. He was too trusting of people in Congress.”

Tom Dowd, a 48-year-old land surveyor from Maryland’s eastern shore, was a registered Independent voter who had voted for Obama and attended his inauguration. He was also unsure about voting for the President again. “I’m not sure his focus on health care was the best idea at a time when the economic situation takes precedence,” he said.

Obama’s personal style didn’t help his party. As he pushed his health care reforms in the middle of an economic meltdown, his cool, Spock-like demeanour, which once made him seem so “cool under pressure,” increasingly looked cold and out of touch. In a recent New York Times interview, Obama said of financially pressed Americans, “They started feeling like: ‘Gosh, here we are tightening our belts, we’re cutting out restaurants, we’re cutting out our gym membership, in some cases we’re not buying new clothes for the kids.’ ” Gym memberships? Indeed. Millions of Americans have lost their homes. The unemployment rate is stuck at 9.6 per cent. And a record number of people are relying on food stamps.

Out of this sea of economic anxiety, voters were ready to punish incumbent lawmakers of both stripes for joblessness, rising deficits and government spending, and the Wall Street bailout that began under Bush. But the rise of the Tea Party candidates, for all their personal foibles and far-right ideas, played an important role. It allowed conservative voters to punish incumbent Republicans in the party’s primary elections by replacing them with outsider candidates. They could then still vote Republican, albeit a new kind of Republican, on Nov. 2.

The result of the GOP wave is that Obama’s agenda for the second half of his term is mostly a non-starter. He has pledged to move forward on issues such as climate change and immigration reform, but he’ll find few takers among Republicans in Congress. Instead, they plan to put him on the defensive by trying to repeal, or deny funding to, his legislation on health care and financial regulation, among other things—in spite of the President’s statement on Election Day that he wants to “co-operate” with Republicans.

Obama’s aides have mentioned areas where the two sides could potentially reach some accommodation: passing pending trade agreements, expanding nuclear energy production, and education reform. But Republican leaders have made it clear they do not intend to give him any sort of legislative victory that he could tout when running for re-election. “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said ahead of the election. “Our single biggest goal is to give our nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful.”

John Boehner, the 10-term Ohio congressman who is expected to become House Speaker when the newly elected lawmakers take their seats in January, will be the public face of the Republicans in Congress. Boehner has criticized most of Obama’s moves, calling for his economic team to resign, and opposing the President’s pledge to shut down the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, which Boehner portrays as “a fabulous facility in Cuba” and “state of the art.” Boehner, who worked with Newt Gingrich on the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 during the Clinton administration, when the Republicans ran on a “Contract with America” platform, helped craft a similar national GOP message this time: a “Pledge to America” in which Republicans promised to cut taxes, repeal health care reform, and cut spending.

One thing seems certain: there will be plenty of confrontation ahead, especially over spending and taxes. And before the new Congress even begins its work on Jan. 3, the current lame-duck session will have to decide what to do about the Bush administration’s tax cuts, which are scheduled to expire at the end of the year. Obama had proposed letting the cuts expire for the wealthiest Americans, while keeping them in place for those earning only low- and middle-class incomes, but Republicans want to make all the Bush tax cuts permanent. A temporary extension of the Bush taxation rates for several years may be a possible compromise to avoid a stalemate that would result in all the tax cuts expiring automatically at the end of 2010.

But if the battle over the Bush tax cuts will be tough, others may be even harsher—especially on matters pertaining to spending. When Obama proposes a 2012 budget early next year, “there’ll be a big fight,” predicts Brian Darling, the director of government relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “Tea Party members will be driving the debate.” They’ll likely advocate withholding the funds needed to put in place Obama’s health care reform law, among other potential flashpoints for social spending. On election night, Boehner signalled the great influence the Tea Party will have in the new Congress, pledging on a call with Tea Party activists, “I’ll never let you down.”

Another opportunity for conflict will come when it’s time to pass a law to increase the ceiling on the amount of money the U.S. Treasury is allowed to borrow. Some Republicans will oppose letting the debt increase—even if that means some parts of the government must stop operating. “I think you’ll see some brinksmanship when the debt limits increase comes up,” said Darling.

But while Obama’s ability to push his domestic agenda has been severely weakened, that doesn’t mean his presidency is dead. The party that occupies the White House often loses the mid-term elections. In fact, in the mid-terms in which incumbent presidents have suffered the greatest losses, they have gone back to win re-election two years later. Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered a massive defeat in 1938 and won a third term in 1940; Harry Truman was humiliated in 1946 when Republicans gained 55 House seats, but went on to win the 1948 election anyway. And in 1994 Democrats lost Congress—but Bill Clinton was re-elected two years later.

In some ways, Obama is in a better position than Ronald Reagan, whose Republicans went into the 1982 mid-term elections in the midst of a recession and were also pummelled. According to an opinion poll conducted shortly before this election by the Pew Research Center, about half of respondents (47 per cent) say they would like to see Obama run again, while 43 per cent said they would not. Compare that to Reagan’s situation in August 1982, when only 36 per cent said they wanted him to run again and 57 per cent said he should not. When Reagan did run again in 1984, he won by a margin of 18 points.

“It’s by no means a fatal repudiation,” says Steven Gillon, a presidential historian at the University of Oklahoma, of these mid-terms. After all, the pressure will now be on Republicans to make good on their campaign pledges—and to translate their promises of deficit-cutting into a tangible program. “There will be an expectation that Republicans will govern,” says Gillon. “Simply not being Nancy Pelosi will not be enough.”

Obama has argued that Republicans will not be able to find a way to keep all of the Bush tax cuts and balance the budget without significantly slashing popular middle-class entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. “The numbers don’t add up,” he told the New York Times. And for every cut, there will be a constituency that will be angry—as Bush learned when he tried to reform Social Security and faced a well-organized backlash from senior citizens. That will be a political opportunity for Obama.

Bill Clinton showed how it’s done. After losing Congress in 1994, in a spectacular rout that saw Republicans take control for the first time in 40 years, he was able to regain public opinion to his side when Republicans overreached by shutting down the federal government in a standoff with the president over government spending.

Of course, he had some help. Newt Gingrich, then the speaker of the House, came to be perceived as the face of the Republican revolution, which proved harmful when he made personal gaffes. He suggested that he pushed through even more draconian spending cuts than originally planned as revenge after Clinton snubbed him on a plane ride to and from Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in Israel. He was lampooned as a diaper-wearing infant throwing a tantrum. “It made Gingrich look like a fool and it tipped opinion against the Republicans. They didn’t learn from that and shut down the government a second time,” says Gillon, author of The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation. “Obama needs to sit back and let them do what they promised, which is to move to balance the budget, see what painful cuts they make, and then jump all over them, which is what Clinton did.”

Indeed, Obama’s advisers who have studied history may note that after the early eruptions of partisan brinksmanship, Clinton and the Republicans in Congress were eventually able to start cutting deals—eventually passing bipartisan welfare reform and a crime bill. “What we’ll see over the next two years is if Obama can be as ideologically flexible as Bill Clinton was in the years after the debacle,” says Gillon. But historical comparisons have caveats. Gillon notes that Clinton’s bipartisan deals took place once the presidential race of 1996 was already under way, with the aged senator Bob Dole as the presumptive GOP nominee and Clinton already comfortably ahead in the polls. Gingrich, Gillon says, made the deals to show voters legislative accomplishments that would help keep Republican seats in Congress, even though he knew he was helping Clinton win re-election too.

In Reagan’s case, an economic recovery followed the 1982 mid-terms, paving the way for his re-election. But the current U.S. economy does not bode well for Obama. It remains weak: forecasters say it will take four times as long to return to pre-recession employment levels than in the early 1980s. And Republicans have learned their history lessons, too. McConnell has warned Republicans not to become a “foil,” and has called Gingrich’s government shutdown a “serious mistake.” This time, he said, they have to “work smarter.”

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