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Obama & the Coming Election

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Win McNamee/Getty Images
President Obama with Republican congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner at the Capitol, Washington, D.C., February 2013

Thus far, interest in this year’s midterm elections is in almost inverse proportion to their importance. The most important question is whether the Republicans will gain control of the Senate while retaining their majority in the House. That could make Congress still more belligerent toward the president. It would not only continue to block progress on pressing national needs but also prevent him from shoring up the progressive faction on the Supreme Court against what a possible Republican successor would do.

Also uncertain is to what extent the Democrats can reverse the enormous gains the Republicans made in 2010, when they took over both the governorships and the legislatures of twelve formerly Democratic states. They now control twenty-six states, which has had major substantive effects on national policy. For example, twenty Republican-dominated states have refused to expand Medicaid coverage to their poorest citizens or to set up their own health insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act.

The outcomes in the state elections will affect the extent to which redistricting will result in an even more unrepresentative system and exacerbate gridlock and hyperpartisanship in Washington. As of now, the turnout this November is predicted to be uncommonly low, even for midterms, which traditionally attract fewer voters than do presidential elections. Midterm voters are older, whiter, and, since they include fewer and fewer veterans of the New Deal era, over time they have come to represent more conservative values than the voters in presidential contests. The political analyst Charlie Cook says:

In effect, seniors, who have always had a disproportionate influence in midterms because they have a higher participating rate than any other group, have switched sides and are more conservative than before. As this has happened, the difference between midterm and presidential electorates has widened.

We have in effect two different electorates.

Republicans have been remarkably successful in blocking bills supported by Obama, and this in turn has helped convince voters that his accomplishments are meager. Frustration with the gridlock in Washington and feelings of discouragement about the future have led to a particularly sour electorate, which also takes a dim view of the Republican Congress. (In recent polling, no more than 19 percent approved of it.) The sour mood could well affect the turnout; and a small number of voters could determine how the country is governed for the next two years.

With the president’s job approval dropping to 40 percent, according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (other polls were slightly higher), Republicans are trying to identify his party’s candidates with him. And since for the first time his rating for likability is below 50 percent, the president now has less to fall back on. It’s often difficult for politicians of the president’s party to deflect the attacks on him. It’s even more unlikely to happen if they don’t try.

One of the most potent issues the Democrats might have had was the right wing’s engineering of the highly unpopular government shutdown last fall. But as it happened, the shutdown began on the same day, October 1, as the rollout of Obamacare, which crashed by day’s end. The shutdown ended but the problems plaguing the federal health care exchange continued a good deal longer, and left a lasting poor impression of the Affordable Care Act and of the president as a manager—a fair charge in this instance.

As expected, the Republicans are attacking incumbents who supported Obamacare—or they are demanding that would-be Democratic senators say whether they would support it, but the fact is that congressional Republicans have given up even pretending that they would repeal it. Though Obamacare is by now generally working, it remains deeply unpopular. Yet voters don’t list it as among their top concerns. It turns out that it’s the president’s name in the nickname for the law—Obamacare, a Republican invention that the president had no choice but to embrace—that’s highly unpopular, and even Republicans aren’t challenging the health care law’s most popular reforms. So Democratic candidates are loath to extoll Obamacare as such, and many of them are offering up the less than rousing line that it needs to be fixed but not ended.

Probably not since Richard Nixon have so many candidates shied away from being in the presence of their party’s president when he shows up in their states—though they welcome his strenuous fund-raising efforts on their behalf. It’s often said that the president should socialize more with Republicans, but they, too, don’t want to be seen in his presence and often turn down White House invitations; John Boehner has been forbidden by the House Republican caucus to negotiate with Obama on his own. Yet the public perception is that the failure of Washington to solve major problems during the past six years falls on the president as well as on those actually responsible—the Republicans. In fact, no president in history has faced such intransigence from the opposition party. It’s undeniable that the president’s race has a significant part in the destructive ways in which he is talked about and opposed.

Obama has on occasion fretted aloud that the focus in the news on the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington diverts attention from what he’s been able to achieve. When he’s long gone from the White House it could well become apparent that despite the odds Obama was responsible for notable achievements, among them Obamacare; getting gay marriage widely accepted; beginning to turn federal energy policy toward a more environmentally conscious set of policies; the Dodd-Frank bill’s restraints on Wall Street, however limited, with its rules still being argued over; and the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency championed by Elizabeth Warren.

Obama did much to pull the country out of the deep recession he inherited, including a rescue of the automobile industry, but a lot of people still don’t benefit from the improved economy, or have dropped out of the labor market, or have been forced into part-time jobs and lower wages.

No doubt it would have been beneficial if more money had been approved for rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, but the votes in Congress weren’t there, just as they weren’t for a single-payer health system, and no amount of presidential rhetoric or arm-twisting—about which there is a fair amount of mythology—would have made a difference.

Obama’s one great disappointment was the failure to win comprehensive immigration reform. After the 2012 election the Republicans were panicking that if they didn’t back immigration reform, Hispanics would punish them mightily in 2016. But then they panicked that if they did back it, Tea Party candidates would upset them in their primaries in 2014.

It’s been evident for quite a while that a certain chilliness on Obama’s part has affected his relations with Congress, but it’s also questionable how much substantive difference this has made. A Cabinet officer said to me, “He’s a loner, and one result is that few Democrats are willing to take the hill for him.” Obama rose swiftly in politics and essentially on his own—he’d been on his own for most of his life—and political camaraderie is of little interest to him. His golfing foursomes are most often made up of junior White House staff and close nonpolitical friends from Chicago. This might not make much difference in the number of bills passed but it has had one very serious effect on his presidency: the Democrats’ unwillingness to praise, defend, much less celebrate the president has left the field clear to his multitude of attackers.

Obama tended to proceed on the theory that if he made some concessions to the Republicans—say, by speeding up deportations of undocumented immigrants—they might be more cooperative; but this hasn’t worked out. It’s true that he is innately cautious, and it’s also true that it is a lot easier to declare what he should have done than to show how he could actually have gotten the votes for that. Little is as simple in the Oval Office as it is to outside critics.

Obama has been beset by the same problem on foreign policy. And as a result of his own actions (or inactions), the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this past June showed that a mere 37 percent approved of his handling of it and 57 percent disapproved. Just a year before it had been even, at 46 percent to 46 percent. What has happened in the intervening time? Obama is accused of often overthinking an issue until too late, of being too slow to act, of allowing events to dictate his responses. It might seem that after eight years of George W. Bush’s rash and disastrous actions, caution would be welcome.

But the Ronald Reagan–John Wayne myth of bold, simple solutions lies deep in the American psyche. It was all so much simpler during the cold war; and the country became accustomed to simpler rhetoric. When Obama acts, or declines to, his critics—be they John McCain or an editorial writer or one of a myriad of foreign or defense policy “experts” who pop up on television—can urge from their comfortable perches that he should do more. But when McCain and his pal Lindsey Graham argue that the president should use greater force in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, or wherever, they aren’t required to explain the downside risks, or what they would do next if their strategy failed.

When the president authorized air strikes against ISIS in Iraq in August, the usual Republicans inevitably said he wasn’t going far enough and some Democrats began to fret aloud that he might get too involved. Though some leading Democrats quickly drew a line at the use of American ground troops, the president is as reluctant as anyone else to use them. An official who has dealt with him on policy in the Middle East says, “Avoiding another Iraq is his guiding principle.”

The difficult situation Obama was in, politically as well as militarily, over ISIS made all the more jarring Hillary Clinton’s comment that if he had taken her advice and armed the “moderate” Syrian rebels, ISIS might not have developed. It also raised serious questions about both her political and strategic judgment.

An oddity about Mrs. Clinton’s complaint that the president allowed a vacuum in Syria in which ISIS could develop is that ISIS is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and it first emerged there as a result of Iraq’s dysfunction; so it’s questionable whether it could have been stamped out in Syria, much less by arming “moderate” forces. Bruce Riedel, a former high-level CIA official specializing in the Middle East and North Africa, a presidential adviser, and now with the Brookings Institution, told me, “ISIS’s base and stronghold is still in Iraq—the critics are in the wrong battlefield when they claim helping in Syria would have prevented ISIS.”

Mrs. Clinton’s efforts in the face of widespread criticism to smooth things over with the president weren’t likely to cause him to forget the whole thing. He can do a slow burn with the best of them. Moreover, the Clinton camp had been trying for weeks to call attention to her disagreement with the president over Syria, among other differences with him. Obama may recall that when he was first elected president and it became known that he was considering Clinton for the nomination for secretary of state—undoubtedly on the theory of “keep ’em in the corral”—Senator Edward Kennedy warned him that he was about to make a very serious mistake that he would come to regret: that the Clintons are about themselves.

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David Tulis/AP Images
Democrat Michelle Nunn (center), who is running for a Senate seat from Georgia, at a debate during the Democratic primaries, May 2014

Bruce Riedel reaffirms the president’s view of the risks of arming “moderates” in Syria. Riedel said in a recent Brookings forum: “If you think you can give weapons only to the good guys, forget it. The bad guys will get them.” Later, he told me, “The president has had a very clear policy toward Syria: stay out of it at any cost. His governing policy is to avoid getting tangled up in situations in the Middle East and North Africa that can turn out to be disasters.” But ISIS may force his hand to get more and more involved in Syria with air strikes and special forces and perhaps drones, as he has already done in Iraq.

A problem for the public is that the president occasionally sends confusing signals—doing a little of what he’d adamantly said shouldn’t be done, or feinting in the direction of more involvement without wanting to follow through. The president more than once moved toward greater involvement in Syria while at the same time seeking to make sure that it wouldn’t happen. In 2012 he drew a “red line” on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens and then was much criticized when he didn’t follow through after Assad used them.

Unfortunately for the president, such criticism is based on a partial recollection of what happened. After Assad defied him and used chemical weapons, Obama felt pressed to respond. But rather than go ahead with bombing in Syria, with all the risks of getting further drawn into a civil war he was trying to avoid, he took the famous long walk on the White House grounds with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, to whom he’s said to feel closer than anyone else he works with—other than, of course, the ever-present Valerie Jarrett—and decided to put the issue to Congress by asking its permission to bomb in Syria.

There’s little reason to doubt that he did this in the knowledge that the permission was unlikely to be forthcoming. But the outcome was more felicitous than that. Obama accepted an offer by the Russians to negotiate the removal of the chemical weapons from Syrian hands. Since the Russians are allied with the Syrian government, Obama’s threat seems to have been more credible to Assad than to his American critics.

Another example of Obama fuzzing his declared policy actually concerns supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels. On two occasions—once in 2012, under pressure from Hillary Clinton, CIA Director General David Petraeus, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to arm the rebels, and again in June of this year—the president, rather than issuing a formal statement from the White House, had the CIA e-mail halfhearted requests to Congress for relatively small amounts for arms for “moderate” rebels fighting the Assad regime.

Predictably, on both occasions, Republican and Democratic members of the intelligence and foreign relations committees were skeptical, asking such questions as: How do you know whom to give the weapons to, and how does this fit our general policy of not getting drawn into the Syrian civil war? The administration had no good answers, and as the president appeared to hope, only a small and insignificant number of weapons were sent to Syrian rebels.

As when he said “Assad must go,” Obama’s occasional resorting to unsupported rhetoric contributed to the impression of a weak and indecisive leader. The improvised nature of the president’s foreign policy is only partially of his own doing. McCain and Graham notwithstanding, there can be no one-size-fits-all foreign policy now (nor do they represent the views of even the majority of Republicans on Capitol Hill). The disparate nature of the challenges—from Putin’s adventurism to ISIS’s rise—makes it difficult for a president to enunciate a clear, single policy. As Riedel put it, “‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is as smart an organizing first principle as any.”

But it’s the sense of ad hoc policy-making that causes the public to wonder if the president knows what he’s doing. The former defense and foreign policy official Leslie Gelb wrote recently in The Daily Beast:

Mr. Obama always says a lot of smart things…. Much more than most foreign policy blabbermouths, he is attuned to the underlying centrality of politics in most world problems, and to the need to seek diplomatic solutions…. Once there is any kind of crisis, he doles out little pieces of policy daily…. Obama may view this as making sensible decisions in a step-by-step manner. To those trying to understand what he’s doing, they simply can’t follow him, let alone understand how the pieces and the day-to-day changes mesh.

Around early August the consensus among political observers was that the contours of the midterm elections were set. Chuck Todd of NBC said, “August 1st is the new Labor Day.” The consensus since then has been that the Republicans are odds-on favorites to take over the Senate. The only question has been the percentage of that likelihood. Also it’s generally agreed that no great issue evolved to dominate the fall contests. No one is seriously predicting that the Democrats can win back the House. Of 435 congressional seats, only thirty-eight—twenty-six held by Democrats and twelve by Republicans—are considered in play; and through the Republicans’ control of most states they’ve managed to redistrict in a way that gives them a significant advantage in the House.

With rare exceptions, moreover, the sixth year of a presidency is usually one that favors the opposition party. People have tired of the man in the White House. The Democratic pollster Peter Hart says that people have made up their minds about Obama and are unlikely to change them before November. Finally, by various measurements Republicans are more fired up than Democrats about voting this time. This could be the decisive factor in many-to-all of the races.

Though a few of the twenty-nine Republican governorships might change hands, Republicans will still dominate the statehouses; but the rightward trend at the state level has already been blunted, and may be more so as of this election. As of now, at least one Democratic governor, Pat Quinn of Illinois, is seen to be in serious trouble. Illinois’s crisis of overpromised and underfunded pension is the most acute in the country and the state is nearly bankrupt.

In most of the Democratic-controlled states that the Republicans took over in 2010, they adopted the agenda of the pro-business organization ALEC, which included tax cuts, reduced spending, particularly on education, and also model laws for voter ID and relaxed gun control. But John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, for example, wised up and began to move away from this essentially unpopular agenda, and so he is in a strong reelection position. Scott Walker, of Wisconsin, who has demonstrated presidential ambitions, hasn’t been quite as agile and is in a tight race, though his Democratic opponent is at a serious funding disadvantage. The two deeply conservative Republican governors in eastern states—Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania and Tea Party member Paul LePage of Maine—are highly unpopular (Corbett has the distinction of being the most unpopular governor in the country) and widely expected to go down to defeat.

Rick Scott of Florida is in a close race with Charlie Crist, a Republican turned Democrat. But probably the most interesting governorship race is in Kansas, where the incumbent Sam Brownback gave full vent to his extremely conservative fiscal and social views. Kansas is now deeply in debt. Brownback also tried to purge the more moderate Republicans in his state legislature. This caused over a hundred leading Republicans to oppose him for reelection this year. If Brownback loses, this would confirm that the country simply isn’t ready to be governed by a highly conservative agenda.

But there are reasons to hold back on prognosticating what will happen in November. There’s still plenty of time for an issue to blow up and have an impact on the outcome. In 1980 the race between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter was quite close heading into the final weekend. Then, going into that weekend, it suddenly became clear that the Iranians wouldn’t release the American hostages then that they had been holding captive for over a year. This failure lit the fuse under a growing frustration with Carter, with the result that Reagan carried forty-four states. Moreover, nine incumbent Democratic senators were defeated in the undertow of the last-minute “wave.” Since the president is on the defensive over a number of issues, his party is more vulnerable to a wave of opposition votes that can still develop at any time up to election day.

One reason for the widespread view that the Republicans would likely take over the Senate is that the election map and math in 2014 favor them. The Democrats have twenty-one incumbent senators up for reelection, several in red or purple states, while the Republicans have fifteen, almost all of them in safe Republican states. But some races count for more than the others, the most-watched one being the reelection effort of Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, which has national implications.

Should the Republicans take over the Senate, then McConnell, particularly loathed by Democrats for his obstructionist tactics and his wintry personality, would become majority leader. To appeal to the Republican base, McConnell recently said that were he to become majority leader he would favor more government shutdowns—a total reversal of his previous position against them for fear they would hurt his party. As of August, McConnell was facing a stiff challenge by Alison Lundergan Grimes, though he has a record of pulling out victories at the last minute, sometimes with ads that are particularly nasty. But his popularity in Kentucky has hit an all-time low. Of the six Senate seats the Republicans need to pick up in order to capture a majority, three seats held by Democrats who have chosen to retire have for some time been considered by pollsters and analysts to be lost to the Republicans: South Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana. There’s no reason to doubt them on this. In the remaining seven close races where the Democratic incumbent faces a strong challenge or there’s an open seat—Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa, Alaska, and Michigan—the analyses have gone back and forth on how the Democrat is doing. At times Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Udall of Colorado, and Mark Begich of Alaska have been believed to be in peril, only to be resuscitated as “doing better.”

The Democrats’ highest hopes of capturing a previously held Republican seat have been placed on Michelle Nunn, the former executive director of George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light volunteer association and daughter of the popular former senator Sam Nunn. But Michelle Nunn faces another scion of Georgia’s political aristocracy, David Perdue. While the demography of Georgia has been moving toward the Democrats, the most reputable analysts now say that the state hasn’t yet changed enough for a Democrat to win it this year.

Whether or not the Republicans take control of the Senate, the ground there has already shifted to the right. While national Republican officials boast that not one of their incumbents was defeated by a Tea Party challenger—and unlike in the last two elections they had avoided nominating any goofballs (doing so had cost the party six seats)—the victories of what are called “mainstream” Republicans over Tea Party challengers haven’t been without cost to the party’s standing in the next presidential election. For one thing, some of the victories weren’t so thumping as to warrant discounting the Tea Party’s effect on the GOP. In most cases the incumbent had to move to the right in order to prevail.

The Republicans are so uncertain of victory in elections to federal offices that they’re still resorting in several states to passing laws that make voting more difficult for minorities and other groups who would ordinarily vote for the Democrats. Some of these laws are even stricter than those adopted in 2012. Democrats might appear to have issues that could drive their voters to the polls. These would include Republican efforts to deprive women of their own reproductive decisions and opposition to such measures as raising the minimum wage and making unemployment insurance last longer.

Still, largely because of the president’s unpopularity, the Democratic candidates have been having problems finding their voice. Most of their races are focused on the vulnerabilities of their opponents, making for a thus far unedifying election. The result is that a midterm election with national implications so far has no overall national theme.

Unknown at this point is the effect of the unprecedented amounts of outside money being poured into many of the races. It’s estimated that the Kentucky race alone will cost $100 million, the highest amount ever for a state contest. In addition, numerous members of the more militantly liberal Democratic wing have been holding back support of their party’s candidate because of impurities they find in the president’s or candidate’s positions. Democrats “disappointed” in Obama could help elect a Republican Senate. The odds may be stacked against the Democrats this November, but whether they can stave off a loss of control of one half of Congress is still up to them and their would-be supporters.

—August 27, 2014

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