Government and Politics


2010 mid-term elections

Clodagh Harrington

On 2 November 2010, Americans went to the polls in the mid-term elections. Obama’s Democratic Party suffered severe losses. Clodagh Harrington analyses the results and asks: what does Obama do now?

Flicking through the US and international media sources after the elections, one would be forgiven for thinking that the presidency of Barack Obama was dead in the water, after a mere 22 months. The Houston Chronicle declared ‘his continued, embarrassing, on-the-job training…implies the grim reality of Obama being a one-term president’ and Italy’s La Stampa decided that ‘the mid-terms are a death sentence for Obama’.


But is it really all doom and gloom for the man who, in 2008, everyone thought would change the world? Or change US policy, at least. There is no doubt that the Democrats suffered a severe blow on 2 November (see Box 1) — the worst for the party in half a century. Obama faced criticism from all sides:

  • his liberal supporters who were disillusioned

  • those first-time voters from 2008 who were nowhere to be seen on polling day in 2010

  • his opponents who were gleeful that he was satisfying nobody

With a price tag of well over $5 billion — the most expensive election in US history — this was a costly test of US public opinion.

Lessons from recent history

A glance through history can provide some context for the current situation. Think about the 1938 mid-term elections when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s party lost 71 seats in the House of Representatives: Republicans and conservative Democrats turned against him as the economy experienced a second downturn during the Depression. Nonetheless, Roosevelt went on to be re-elected twice more and is considered by many to be the greatest president of the twentieth century.

Or consider Ronald Reagan, who inherited a dreadful economic situation when he came to power in 1981. By the 1982 mid-terms, public frustration with the president’s handling of the economy was such that his party lost 27 seats in the House of Representatives. Unemployment had reached 10% — higher than the current rate of 9.6% — and yet a mere 2 years later, Reagan swooped to presidential victory again in a 49-state landslide and went on to be one of the most popular presidents of the modern era.


Finally, a recent example worth mentioning is the Clinton presidency. At the time of his 1992 victory, the country was in the middle of a nasty recession. His party won majorities in both houses of Congress and still, within 2 years, his approval ratings were in the doldrums and his legislative agenda was stalling badly. Clinton had campaigned on a platform of healthcare reform and this was the flagship policy of his first 2 years in office. Unlike Obama, the Clinton plan died before it ever made it through Congress and his detractors rejoiced at the failure. Nonetheless, Clinton went on to win a second term and even managed to do business with his Republican congressional nemesis Newt Gingrich.

The current situation

Are the challenges of a twenty-first century post mid-term president so different? In some ways, no. Many of the key issues remain. Healthcare has been an enormously divisive issue in the US for decades. Obama managed what his recent predecessors had not. He got a healthcare bill through Congress, albeit a watered down version, and did so with no Republican support. He inherited an economy in tatters. Recessions are a fairly regular occurrence but this one is particularly harsh. Many Americans were horrified at the $787 billion stimulus plan and the bank bailout and yet the administration insisted that without these measures the economy would have gone into meltdown.

Obama now needs to draw lessons from the Clinton situation in 1994. It was from this moment on that Clinton had to hone his political skills and — crucially — exhibit humility and a capacity for compromise. There are many aspects of Obama as president that have yet to be demonstrated. His 2008 election victory showcased his superb organisational skills as he ran a flawless campaign. At the time, sceptics wondered how his political skills would match up and for his first 2 years in office, with majorities in both houses of Congress, he has had little requirement to exhibit any negotiating skills. These days are categorically over.

One can only hope that Obama possesses the necessary qualities of pragmatism and optimism that got presidents Reagan and Clinton through such challenging times. Even those who still support Obama acknowledge that his weaknesses include indecision and a professorial approach. A top priority for any president on the back-foot after such a mid-term defeat is to connect with the public and clarify his message. Many Americans view Obama as remote, even dispassionate.


The United States of anger

The US electorate is angry. The 2010 mid-terms demonstrated this. Many Democrat voters changed their preference or simply stayed home on polling day. However, voters of all persuasions are troubled by something more profound than the decisions of the current president. They are angry with politicians, with government and with the whole system.


There is a pattern here. In the 2006 mid-terms, voters displayed their frustration with the Bush government by taking away Republican control of Congress. Unaffordable tax cuts that had blown up the deficit, a banking system that seemed answerable to no one, two long and expensive wars, the 2005 response to Hurricane Katrina, economic stagnation, soaring healthcare costs and increased job losses resulted in increasing public rage.


In 2008, voters turned away from the Republican Party altogether and handed the executive, as well as the House and the Senate to the Democrats. Much of presidential candidate Obama’s appeal was simply that he was not Bush. Two years on, the problems have not magically disappeared, but now frustration is directed at Obama and the Democrats, and the party in power is being punished again. The result is gridlock between opposing forces that cannot or will not cooperate in any meaningful way.


A divided Congress — Republicans in charge of the House and Democrats in charge of the Senate — will make the president’s daunting to-do list (see Box 2) all the more challenging.

Mad hatters or the tea party?

Currently little more than a hotchpotch of groups and ideas with no formal organisation or focus, the Tea Party movement took the country by storm in the run up to the mid-term elections. Moderates within the Republican Party, who do not support the president’s agenda, are nonetheless unnerved by these eruptions on the far right of US politics.

Similarities could be drawn with the Reagan coalition of the 1980s, that is, white, married Americans irate and frustrated with the direction that their country is taking, but the Tea Party demographic tends to be older and slightly more affluent. The shared belief is that ‘government is not the solution, government is the problem’.

This Reagan campaign slogan from the 1980s in many ways sums up the essence of the US culture wars — the ongoing divide between various groups dotted along the US political spectrum. The arguments are not new, but the rise of the new media and 24-hour news culture ensures that the battle is relentless and often transcends the political to become highly personal, confrontational and downright nasty.


Pundits remain undecided regarding the future of the Tea Party. Historically, the USA has tended to remain a two-party nation, despite the efforts of outsiders and renegade political factions over the years. The usual outcome for such a group is that it either fades away or is eclipsed by the party to which it is most ideologically suited.


Box 2

Obama’s to-do list

The president’s current to-do list is daunting:

  • Fixing the economy is paramount. At the exact moment of writing, the US national debt was $13,719,512,111,466. It increases at a rate of $100,000 per second. There are some signs of economic improvement but the housing market is at a standstill and unemployment remains stubbornly high, with 14 million out of work.

  • There is talk of a July 2011 proposed exit date from Afghanistan but General Petraeus reserves the right to change this.

  • Defence spending for the fiscal year 2010 was $533.8 billion — a particularly staggering figure considering how financially overstretched the country is

  • Immigration is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore and yet the president will struggle to find any cross-party cooperation on such a thorny issue.

  • The defence department keeps a close eye on the increasingly volatile Iranian situation but foreign policy experts say that any US action is unlikely.

  • Russia and China are unimpressed with Obama’s ‘AfPak’ strategy.

  • Obama’s efforts to move the Arab–Israeli peace process forward are met with continuing roadblocks.

  • Despite a campaign pledge to shut it down, Guantanamo — shorthand to many for international injustice — remains open.

  • The terrorist threat persists, and has to be addressed.

  • The nuclear issue, particularly in relation to Russia, is highly problematic, and rogue states are a continuous headache.

  • The administration’s climate change policy has not gone according to plan, with aggressive 2008 targets for reducing carbon emissions unmet due to a barrage of lawsuits against the government.


Mama grizzly

It remains to be seen whether the Tea Party is anything more than a storm in a cup, but the darling of the movement is the former vice-presidential candidate turned Fox news analyst, Sarah Palin. Her brand recognition and enormous popularity among Republican supporters (81% in November 2010, according to the latest Gallup polls) have pundits speculating wildly about her plans for the 2012 elections. To date, she has not confirmed her intentions but has told the New York Times that she is consulting her family on the matter.


The Republican Party will be acutely aware that she does badly in the polls among Democrats and Independents (81% and 53% respectively have a negative image of her). However, 2 years is a long time to hone the necessary political skills and those who know her say that Palin is increasingly media savvy, smart, quick to learn, highly ambitious and charismatic. Men offering far less have previously won the Oval Office, so she should not be ruled out as a contender. In addition, if Obama’s stimulus package is considered a failure in the coming 2 years, the small-government platform that she runs on will have increasing appeal.


Political scientist Larry Sabato reminds us that although Palin is hugely popular among Republicans, many of those who like her acknowledge that she has ‘too many negatives’ and is divisive. Karl Rove, chief political strategist to President George W. Bush, publicly criticised Palin for a lack of gravitas in deciding to star in her own reality television show on the Discovery Channel. Others argue that in the current celebrityobsessed culture, it is a smart PR move to bring her message and way of life into the living rooms of millions who may not be politically aware. However, her popularity alone may not be enough to get her on the ticket in 2012 when the Republicans are so desperate to remove Obama.


Gridlock or cooperation?

Much of what occurs politically in the next 2 years is beyond the president’s control. Whether Obama ends up as a one- or two-term president will be influenced by his efforts to work through the nation’s crises alongside the Republicans. However, continuous filibustering by his congressional opponents, for example, will severely challenge his political ability.


Under the circumstances, which are as testing as any president could wish for, Obama’s best option going forward is that of cost-conscious realism. Reining in the high-blown rhetoric and clarifying his message is vital. The medium-term political direction of both parties remains somewhat uncertain, but there are some areas where those seemingly on opposite ends of the political spectrum may find surprising common ground, for example, via an agreement on reducing the defence budget.


Right now, the parties are preparing to embark on a 2-year ideological head-to-head contest for arguably the most important job on the planet. Stay tuned.