Inside Story

By Lesley Russell

THE MIDTERM elections are less than fifty days away, and while Barack Obama won’t be on the ballot he is arguably the key factor in determining the results. The landslide that swept Obama into office was always going to be clawed back – that’s inevitable in mid-terms – 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.

President Obama has delivered the most effective and far-reaching legislative agenda since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. In less than two years he has reformed healthcare and reduced the budget deficit, implemented financial reforms and protections, delivered on commitments to bring the troops home from Iraq, restarted the Middle East peace talks, invested in education, and spent billions on revitalising ageing infrastructure across the nation. But Americans are ignoring these impressive achievements because they are consumed with the lingering impact of the recession and job losses.

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 healthcare bill. Most voters thought the country was heading in the wrong direction, had unfavourable views of the president and Congress, and felt it was time for new leadership in Washington. The Republicans swept to power, capturing an extra nine seats in the Senate and fifty-two in the House.

There are obvious reasons why this situation might give both political parties a sense of déjà vu. In both 1993 and 2009 the new Democrat president came into office on a wave of hope with an ambitious agenda that soon fell victim to virulent partisanship fights. But there are also some crucial differences.

This time around, Republicans have been united as the party of “no” behind leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. But these two men – best described as country-club conservatives – cannot match the political skills of 1993’s Newt Gingrich, and they have no policy offerings to match Gingrich’s Contract with America. This is reflected in the fact that voters are as unenthusiastic about Republicans as they are about Democrats. Just 34 per cent of all voters – and 27 per cent of independent voters – say most Democrats in Congress deserve to be re-elected, and only 31 per cent of all voters and of all independents say that most Republican lawmakers have earned another term.

Today’s political situation may be more akin to that confronted by President Reagan in 1982. At that point unemployment had peaked at 10.8 per cent, up from 7.2 per cent when he took office, inflation was at 6 per 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 twenty-seven 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 forty-nine states and a decisive 59 per cent of the popular vote to 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 42 per 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.

Since Labor Day, the president has been out of his newly renovated Oval Office and on the campaign trail, doing what he does best – making his case directly to the people. 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 that do anything beyond proposing more tax cuts for the rich.

The Democrats should be able to benefit from the Republican push to hold tax cuts for middle-class families and small businesses hostage to those for the rich, and from the paucity of Republican fiscal policies. This may resonate in a society where economic benefits go overwhelmingly to those already at the top. In 2007 the richest 1 per cent of households took in more than 23 per cent of all income.

An unpredictable factor in the upcoming elections is the role of the Tea Party movement and its impact on the conservative vote. Their prevailing philosophy is that every new government action is a step towards socialism or fascism, and already there is talk of shutting down government, as was done in 1995. But, as commentator David Brooks points out, the American story is not about limited government but about energetic governments that use aggressive federal power to promote growth and social mobility. He argues that America currently faces a series of social and economic problems that cannot be addressed by getting government out of the way. Voters fled the Republican Party after the chaos of the government shutdown in 1995, and they would do so again.

Despite the prognostications of the pundits and their polls, the exact pattern of votes in the November elections is yet to be determined. Six weeks of Obama in straight-talking campaign mode might just see the anticipated mid-term rout averted. •

Lesley Russell is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC and a Research Associate at both the Menzies Centre for Health Policy and the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.