Whether you prefer to believe expert predictions that it will be a “maelstrom,” a “bloodbath,” or merely a “blowout,” Republicans are poised to make substantial gains in Congress next Tuesday and deliver a severe blow to the Obama presidency in the process.
Just two years after sweeping into power on a platform of hope and change, Obama finds himself and his agenda a political liability to Democratic candidates throughout the nation. Though he took office with a 67 percent Gallup approval rating in January 2009, it stood at 44 percent in the most recent survey and has dipped as low as 41 percent. And though he built his candidacy by positioning himself as the anti-Bush, by a 48 percent to 43 percent margin, Americans now think that George Bush was the better president, according to a new survey by Democratic pollster Doug Schoen. The same poll found that 56 percent of the nation wants Obama fired in 2012.
It’s true that as sharp as Obama’s decline has been, the speed of his reversal of political fortunes should serve as a warning to Republicans who are feeling emboldened right now. Just as Obama’s meteoric rise has been followed by a precipitous fall, he could conceivably make a triumphant comeback two years from now.
That said, the two most recent examples of presidential comebacks following defeats in the midterm elections are Bill Clinton after Republicans took back Congress in 1994 and Ronald Reagan after Democrats gained 26 seats to build on their majority in 1982. But there are a number of reasons why Obama’s situation is different.
Clinton was able to mount a political comeback by abandoning his ambitious liberal goals such as health care legislation, bringing up small symbolic issues as in school uniforms and successfully portraying House Republicans as extremists.
Yet while Clinton was willing to sacrifice his agenda for his short-term political benefit, Obama is an ideological liberal who is committed to imposing his policy vision on America regardless of its popularity. Unlike Clinton, Obama successfully passed his unpopular national health care plan, which will continue to disrupt the lives of individuals and businesses over the next two years.
In addition, Republicans have learned a lot of lessons from the experience of 1994, and it’s unlikely that Rep. John Boehner, if he should become House Speaker, will make himself as easy a foil for Obama as Newt Gingrich was for Clinton.
As with Clinton, there are clear parallels between Obama’s situation now, and the political difficulty Reagan found himself in 1982. After running on a promise to restore the nation’s economy, the country was mired in a deep recession with high unemployment despite passing his landmark tax cuts. Reagan’s Gallup approval rating stood at 42 percent in October 1982 (and would reach as low as 35 percent that following January). In 1983, however, the economy improved, and it was booming by 1984 — fueling Reagan’s landslide victory over Walter Mondale.
As with Reagan, Obama’s political fortunes will largely hinge on whether or not Americans feel the economy has recovered by the time of the next election. In Reagan’s case, he took office with an inflation rate of nearly 12 percent. The Federal Reserve Board’s tight monetary policy choked off economic growth early on, but by the end of 1982, the worst was over, inflation was down to under 4 percent, and Reagan’s tax cuts had a chance to work.
Obviously, it’s difficult to predict where the economy will be two years from now. But unlike Reagan, in Obama’s case, the Federal Reserve Board is largely out of ammo in terms of boosting the economy by lowering interest rates further, and instead is expected to try inflating the economy by printing money and purchasing bonds. Meanwhile, the White House has reported that as of September, 70 percent of the economic stimulus package had been spent. With the renewed attention to federal deficits, it’s doubtful that Obama will be able to sign another large economic package.
In addition, the Obama administration has added a raft of new regulations to businesses, including those in the national health care law. The regulatory environment could even worsen further if Republicans take back Congress, because then the administration will become more dependent on federal agencies to impose aspects of Obama’s agenda that he can no longer hope to pass legislatively. It also remains an open question as to whether Obama will be able to get his proposed tax increase by allowing the Bush era rates to expire at the end of the year.
While Obama may have difficulty digging himself out of his political hole on his own, there’s always the chance that he can get help from Republicans. Even if Obama is vulnerable in 2012, the GOP will have to find a strong nominee to challenge him, and right now, the prospective Republican field is uninspiring. There’s also the distinct possibility that Republicans will show themselves to be weak at governing, disappointing their base as well as independents who gave them a chance to prove themselves.