With the midterm elections fast approaching, let’s take a moment and try to figure out what results would be in the best interest of President Obama’s political standing and reelection. What outcome might his political strategists celebrate on Election Night, even if they do so at a very quiet party?
Assume for the sake of argument that the best Democrats can do is suffer substantial losses in the House and Senate but retain slim majorities in the two chambers, thus leaving them unable to push much of a legislative agenda in the next Congress. (That best-case scenario, by the way, is universally accepted by political strategists and prognosticators.)
The president, if he is looking at the election results purely through the prism of his own political fortunes, should not be rooting for that outcome. He should hope, rather, that Republicans take the House by a bare majority, Democrats keep the Senate by a bare majority, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid loses his reelection battle in Nevada.
If Democrats retain all the levers of power after the elections but still can’t get anything done because of their slim governing margins, President Obama and his party will likely bear sole responsibility for dysfunction in Washington. And, as we know, Washington is not a good place to be these days. The president and his party have had control of the White House, the Senate, and the House for the past two years and it hasn’t turned out well politically.
The president needs Republicans to pick up the House or the Senate so he can either: 1) Blame Republicans for what does or does not happen in the next Congress; or 2) Reach authentically across the aisle to get things done in a bipartisan way and tell his own party that he has to do it. Either scenario would help the president’s political standing going into his reelection.
Obama needs Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to go away. They won’t help him win a second term in the White House.
It would not be good for Obama if Democrats lose both the House and Senate. The media, pundits, and Republicans would smell blood in the water and attack relentlessly. Losing one chamber and retaining the other would allow the president to blunt some of this inevitable story line.
Why do I say it would be better for Obama if Democrats lose the House than the Senate? Because Speaker Nancy Pelosi is an albatross hanging around his reelection chances. Her personal ratings are lower than those of former Vice President Dick Cheney (who Democrats love to demonize), and she is so partisan that she would have no chance of corralling Republican support for legislation if the president chooses to go that route.
Although Obama needs to keep the Democratic majority in the Senate, he also needs Harry Reid to go away, for similar reasons. Obama would benefit from a new majority leader who could help him either reach across the aisle or more effectively take on a Republican House leadership. Reid, like Pelosi, has dreadful approval ratings, is distrusted by his Republican colleagues, and has been an ineffective communicator over the past two years.
Thus, the best bottom line for the president is to lose the House, keep the Senate, and not have Pelosi or Reid as impediments to his reelection strategy. And the funny thing is, as of today, the election looks likely to produce exactly that result. I am not suggesting that the president and his team have planned, orchestrated, or even strategized on this result, but their political mistakes over the past 18 months have certainly, from my vantage point, created an environment and a likely result that will hurt the Democrats in Congress badly but benefit the president in his reelection campaign.
The decline in Obama’s approval rating since his inauguration has been the most precipitous going into a first midterm of any president in 50 years. Ultimately, whatever the election results, the president and his team need to better align his policies, vision, and messaging with the majority of the American people so that he can rebuild the trust he has lost over the past year or so. In the end, Obama’s approval rating will pretty much determine his reelection. If his approval rating is above 50 percent, he will win no matter whom Republicans nominate. If it’s below 47 percent, he will lose unless a third-party candidate siphons off anti-Obama votes.
I believe we will know in the first part of 2011 and the new legislative session whether Obama is headed in the direction of Presidents Reagan and Clinton, who lost badly in their first midterms and went on to win reelection; or in the direction of President Carter, who started out with a united country filled with hope and expectation but never recovered after losing the people’s trust and went on to lose his reelection badly. Right now, the polling and approval arc suggests that Obama’s standing resembles Carter’s more than Reagan’s or Clinton’s.
He has time to change this, but not much. Obama looks to be given a gift on November 2 to help him do so.
This article appears in the October 20, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.