The Drum Unleashed (ABC online)
By Brendon O'Connor
Supporters of Obama have drawn some solace from the fact that Bill Clinton's shellacking in the first mid-term elections of his presidency in 1994 did not prevent him from bouncing back to win re-election in 1996.
Clinton went on to have a fairly successful last six years in office sharing power with a Republican Congress. However, comparisons between 2010 and 1994 have been overdone: the times are now very different to 1994, Obama is no Bill Clinton (for better and worse), and the Republican party is more scarred (and presumably battle wary) than it was in the heady days of the Gingrich Revolution following its return to power in the US Congress in 1994 after decades in opposition.
As the great British historian A.J.P. Taylor once argued, we often over learn the lessons of the past. It is perilous to refight the last war when the conditions of the present are inevitably significantly different. Of course we should learn from our past failings, but it is simplistic and dangerous to see all negotiations with autocratic leaders as akin to Munich 1938, or claim that the Obama administration's stimulus program equates to the way the British taxed the American colonists.
First to comparisons between the 1994 and 2010 mid-term elections: The reality is that the losses in the House of Representatives are much more of an indictment on the Obama administration than the 1994 losses were on Clinton, for a number of reasons.
In 1994 the Republicans won many seats in the South for the first time but while Clinton could be blamed for pushing his fellow white Southerners over the cliff, this change was also inevitable. These same people were voting for Republican presidential candidates like Nixon and Reagan and finally relinquished their Democratic loyalties at a local level as well. Once they voted for Republican representatives in the US Congress most white Southerners stuck with them. Further, Clinton governed in a time of Republican ascendency, in the realm of policy ideas and electoral trends, whereas Obama rode to power at a time when Republican ideas had clearly failed and new demographic and electoral trends were emerging.
To be harsh, but I think fair, Clinton bucked the trends, whereas Obama and the Democrats have blown what was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remake the American political landscape.
Bill Clinton came to power with far less public enthusiasm and with less expectation than Obama. Even with these lower expectations Clinton's first two years in office saw a series of missteps and policy failures, a prime example being the particularly demoralising collapse of the health proposal he crafted with Hillary Clinton. In comparison the first two years of the Obama administration have been far better organised and had a much greater number of policy successes. The failed Bush Jr presidency have made the times much better for a reforming liberal than they were in the early 1990s. However, Obama's greatest failings have not been with policy or administration but rather on the political front.
Obama has failed to use the widespread antipathy against the Bush/Cheney Republican Party to his best advantage. He should have been able to make the name George W. Bush as synonymous with failure for today's Americans as Herbert Hoover was for the generation of Americans who lived through the Great Depression. Obama came into office talking up the need for bipartisanship and channelling Lincoln by bringing rivals into his inner circle. However, it was not the speeches of Lincoln but rather those of Roosevelt he should have been reading if he wanted to usher in another era of Democratic Party dominance.
Secondly, the engaging and stirring campaign orator has become a rather staid presidential communicator. Maybe it is a problem of being in the White House bubble; maybe it is the sheer weight of the office and the legacy of problems he inherited from Bush Jr. Whatever the reasons, at this point in time, President Clinton looks like a much better communicator in the oval office than President Obama.
Both Clinton and Obama had to endure personal attacks. Clinton was accused by a well funded set of organisations of many high crimes and misdemeanours – from drug smuggling to having his wife's supposed lover Vince Foster killed. The right constantly attacked his morality and ethics, not surprisingly. He was their nightmare incarnate: a 1960s generation cultural liberal who had never had to pay the price for his many indiscretions. Clinton was accused of being a draft-dodging, drug taking, lying, womaniser. However, he was never attacked as not being American enough: he was just seen as the wrong type of American.
Obama's seemingly model married life has provided his enemies with far less personal material to work with. It has been his "exotic" background and name that the anti-Obama forces have concentrated on. The astounding number of Americans who want to believe (or are ignorant enough to believe) that Obama was not born in the US and that Obama is in fact a Muslim, is the result of both individual bigotry and well financed campaigns. Such personal attacks and rumour-mongering must be dispiriting for any president and create opportunities for your opponents.
How are the Republicans of today different from their 1994 counterparts? If one looks at the leadership figures in the Congress, and factors in the big difference that the Republicans did not win control of the Senate in 2010 as they did in 1994, the situation today looks much more moderate. In theory, this means Obama will not be able to portray the Republicans as "extremists" as Clinton did with the Gingrich-led Republicans. On the other hand, negotiation should be possible. However, the Republicans may believe their electoral interests are best served by blocking Obama's proposals and not negotiating their way through new policy reforms (although following this tactic may well be over learning the lessons of 2009-2010 and may play into Obama's hands).
Although the leadership figures in the GOP are more moderate than their 1994 counterparts, the Tea Party movement is the Gingrich Revolution gone viral. In terms of a manifesto the Tea Party has focused on an anti-government and anti-taxation agenda. The Tea Party's "Contract with America" is far less concerned with social issues than the 1994 Republican Contract with America was. This focus reflects the incredible staying power of anti-government sentiment in America. However, a "tightening the belt" approach to the US federal budget in the case of a double-dip recession in America would be a brutal test of an overly simplistic approach to economics (the human costs of which I'd say would be very high).
The big lesson in the 2010 mid-term elections is that electoral volatility characterises current American politics much more than a realignment to the left, as many hoped was going to be the case after the 2008 elections. This volatility reflects the unreliable nature of parts of the Democrat voting bloc. Young people, Hispanics and poorer Americans are more likely to vote for the Democrats but less likely to turn out to vote than the core Republican voting blocs. This means the Democrats are more likely to do better in presidential election cycles than in mid-term elections. However, I don't want to overstate the pulling power of the parties here: there seems to be a more noticeable pox on both parties in recent times. This creates a serious opportunity for an independent presidential ticket in 2012 (something like a Chuck Hagel/Michael Bloomberg ticket would be a real threat to Obama/Biden). Lastly, recent US elections should teach us to expect the unexpected.
Brendon O'Connor is Associate Professor in American Politics, US Studies Centre, The University of Sydney.