By Lesley Russell
President Barack Obama won't be on the ballot for the November mid-term elections, but he is arguably the key factor in determining the results of these elections. The landslide that swept Obama into office was always going to be clawed back that's inevitable in mid-term but with the economy still lagging, job recovery in the doldrums, and the president's poll numbers dropping, Republicans are already planning their takeover of both the House and the Senate and many Democrats are running scared.
The pundits are talking about whether 2010 will be a repeat of 1994. That was the first mid-term election for a new Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Congressional Democrats were battered after a failed fight to pass a health care bill. By overwhelming numbers, Americans thought the country was heading in the wrong direction, had unfavourable views of the president and Congress, and said it was time for new leadership in Washington.
The Republicans swept to power, capturing 9 seats in the Senate and 52 in the House. Recent polls have shown that Republicans are heading into the final weeks of this mid-term campaign with the political climate highly in their favour. Anti- government sentiment is as high as it was in 1994.
There are some obvious reasons why this situation might give both political parties a sense of deja vu. In both 1993 and 2009, the new Democrat president came into office on a wave of hope and an ambitious agenda but soon fell victim to particularly virulent partisanship fights. But there are also some crucial differences. While Republicans have been united as the party of ''no we can't'' behind leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, these two men are best described as country club conservatives.
They cannot match the political skills of Newt Gingrich and they have no policy offerings to match his Contract with America. This is reflected in the fact that voters are just as unenthusiastic about Republicans as Democrats. Just 34per cent of all voters and 27per cent of independent voters say most Democrats in Congress deserve to be re-elected, and only 31per cent of both all voters and all independents say that most GOP lawmakers have earned another term.
The fact is that today's political situation may be more akin to that confronted by President Reagan in 1982. At that point unemployment had peaked at 10.8per cent, up from 7.2per cent when he took office, inflation was at 6per cent, and the budget deficit was increasing dramatically, despite Reagan's claim to be a deficit hawk. Reagan's popularity stood at just 42 per cent.
The bad news for Obama from the Reagan example is that voter disenchantment in 1982 led to the loss of 27 Republican seats in the House of Representatives.
The good news is that Reagan was back with a vengeance in the 1984 elections when he crushed the Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, winning 49 states and 59 per cent of the popular vote to decisively secure a second White House term. All that Obama needs is for the economy to improve and the unemployment rate to start to move downwards.
This is happening, but it is so very slow that most Americans still think the economy is worsening. And despite the fact that the economic downturn, together with the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq explain virtually the entire deficit over the next ten years, the blame is now sheeted to Obama's policies, with 42per cent of Americans saying the administration deserves a great deal or a good amount of blame for the state of the economy, up 15 points from a year ago.
However Obama watchers have learned that this is a politician who is at his best when his back is against the wall, and the odds are against him. That has been most evident in his campaign speeches last week. His message was the political equivalent of ''I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more.''
He is talking bluntly about the economic situation, acknowledging that middle class families are still hurting, offering plans for more jobs and help for small businesses, and highlighting the lack of Republican policies to do anything beyond proposing more tax cuts for the rich.
Shortly, Americans will see another raft of health care reform measures come into effect which will also help boost their support for this key Obama policy. Five more weeks of Obama in straight-talking campaign mode might just see the anticipated mid- term rout averted.
Dr Lesley Russell is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for American Progress in Washington DC. She is a Research Associate at both the Menzies Centre for Health Policy and the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.