As the November congressional elections draw closer, the conventional wisdom is that large Democratic losses in the Senate and the House of Representatives are inevitable parts of the political process, a reaction to the sweeping Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008. Another view holds that the defeated party reorganizes itself and recovers some political power as the nation seeks a new equilibrium.
Yes, there have been political eras where this scenario played out, when the president’s party suffered significant midterm losses, but there are just as many elections when this did not happen. And in every case, there were policy reasons for defeat of the president’s party at midterm. In the current election, systematic interviews with Democratic and Republican insiders in December, 2008, found that none of them believed that the “inevitability” theory applied to the Obama administration even though it took office in the depths of the Great Recession.
Indeed, the election and inauguration of President Barack Obama was marked by a remarkable outpouring of energy, enthusiasm and passion for his ideas for hope and change. Obama has been unable to keep these feelings and attitudes alive in his own party. They have moved to the Republican opposition. The Tea Party activists are today the main source of passionate public participation with their rallies, public meetings and insistent demands while the people whose vigor elected Obama sit in sullen inactivity. Jay Leno says that “President Obama has a new message for the American people…Things could be a lot worse.” We’ve gone from “Change you can believe in” to “Things could be a lot worse.”
In this depressed political situation, the Obama White House seems to be prepared for the loss of the Senate and the House. Their victories in Health Care Reform and Financial Reform have not brought the enthusiastic popular support they expected. The necessary compromises and the talmudic details of the programs are not well understood and so far have not changed the lives of the voters. Obama supporters have been disappointed on these and other issues. They were expecting a great leap forward but received only a baby step.
Nevertheless, Obama is engaged in an endless summer of fund raising for Democratic candidates, appealing especially for big bucks. His cautious management style seems to preclude any serious effort to rev up his base to challenge the power of the elites who seem to dominate the United States, the military and the bankers. That would not be the style of Obama, a man who prefers loving to fighting.
It is within this depressing frame that Obama and his political advisers prepare for his reelection effort in 2012. They find Obama himself is more popular than his policies. He retains the loyalty of youth, minorities, labor and liberals. Although none of these constituencies are satisfied with Obama’s policies, they cannot allow the historic symbolism of his election to be shrouded in defeat and rejection.
Will Obama’s basic constituency turn out to work and vote in 2012 as they did in 2008? Must he change his advisers and adopt more liberal programs in the face of the Tea Party and the elite’s opposition? Can he reduce unemployment and America’s commitment to police the entire world? Or will our first bi-racial president be rejected, not for his race, but for his unwillingness to preside over a regime of serious change?