Having given himself "a good, solid B-plus" for his first year in office and declaring he would "rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president," President Obama has a lot of people, even in his own party, wondering what on earth constitutes a good performance to his way of thinking.
Jimmy Carter is the only president in over a century who failed to win re-election after taking over from the other party. That presidents usually get re-elected is of little solace to Democrats bracing for losses that could be comparable to the epic midterm election defeats of 1958, 1974, 1982, 1994, and 2006.
Congressional Democrats are hardly blameless on this, but it is the president who sets the agenda and largely runs the show. After his historic election to the presidency, Obama had a lot of political capital. But by opting to push a deeply flawed and insufficiently robust economic stimulus package, one that failed to keep unemployment from rising far higher than the administration expected, Obama committed his first presidential sin. Some observers argue that the $787 billion stimulus package was the biggest the president thought he could get. A far more persuasive argument is that he wanted to save his political capital for causes nearer and dearer to his heart. Making matters worse, the legislation lost credibility because Obama let the stimulus become a Christmas tree for all kinds of pet Democratic projects. Instead of being seen as a much-needed economic shot-in-the-arm, the package was widely viewed as wasteful spending.
Many congressional Democrats were at least enablers and often willing co-conspirators.
The second presidential sin: Instead of immediately pivoting back to the economy when unemployment proved to be worse than anticipated, Obama plowed ahead with health care reform, all but yelling, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" That enraged voters still more.
The third presidential sin was failure to appreciate the intensely negative public reaction to the Troubled Asset Relief Program, initiated in the waning months of the Bush administration and carried through under Obama, and to the various bailouts and takeovers. In my judgment, these rescue operations were essential because our financial system was teetering on the verge of collapse. But many voters were horrified that the role and reach of government were suddenly expanding exponentially and deficits were skyrocketing. That response -- combined with negative reactions to Democrats' handling of the stimulus, health care, and climate change -- triggered a revolt even among many Americans not already up in arms over the failure to pay more attention to jobs.
Because of his trio of sins, Obama's job-approval ratings dropped more in his first year than those of any other president in recent times. With each of these sins, many congressional Democrats were at least enablers and often willing co-conspirators. Obama may have led them off a cliff, but they seemed determined to go along.
Now Democrats' hold on the House is increasingly precarious. Technically, not enough Democratic seats are in extreme jeopardy for analysts to conclude that the party will lose the chamber. But if Democrats stay on their current downward trajectory, their majority will be history. The retirements that are likely to result from almost any deterioration in the House Democrats' current situation would reduce their chances of maintaining control to 50-50.
In the Senate, the Democrats' 60-seat supermajority is only a memory, of course. And the open Democratic seats in Delaware and North Dakota are now hopeless. Five other Democratic seats are in grave danger: Roland Burris's open seat in Illinois and those of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Unless the political environment changes enormously, Democrats probably can't salvage more than one of the five -- if that. Likewise, Democrats will be lucky to pick up even one of the open Republican seats in Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Ohio. So, a year from now, Democrats could be down to 52 to 54 seats.
Looking further ahead, Senate Democrats will have a combined total of 43 seats at risk in 2012 and 2014, some held by incumbents who barely squeaked into office in the 2006 and 2008 banner elections for Democrats. Republicans, meanwhile, will have to defend only 22 seats, all held by survivors of what for the GOP were elections from hell. All of this means that the odds of a Republican Senate majority in the relatively near future are very high.
Does all this sound like a political landscape shaped by a "B-plus" Democratic president? Perhaps Obama should reconsider his grading system -- or his priorities.
This article appears in the Jan. 30, 2010, edition of National Journal.