Pete Souza/The White House

President Barack Obama in the Green Room of the White House, October 2010

After an election, there’s inevitably a variety of pronouncements of politicians on what they “heard the voters say.” They and the various pundits largely “hear” an echo of their own previously held views and find vindication of their particular hobbyhorses. It’s a subjective and self-serving exercise.

There’s also the question of how representative the electorate of 2010 was: Was it the sign of things to come, or was it an aberration? The Democratic consultant Geoff Garin said in an interview, “The idea that these voters represent the center of gravity in this country is not correct, because the 2010 electorate didn’t represent the full range of American voters: it’s very different from the electorate of 2006.” By several accounts, it was older, whiter, and more conservative than the usual electorate.

It appears that in losing at least sixty-two House seats the Democrats got whacked by the center: that independents swung to the Republicans by a substantial margin, a phenomenon that started occurring in the spring of 2009, after the stimulus bill passed; and moderates voted for the Democrats in a far smaller number than in 2008. But the Republicans are in danger of overreading their mandate, just as George W. Bush did after he was reelected in 2004, and made his first order of business privatizing Social Security.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to his press secretary Don Stewart, has been telling his Republican colleagues that the message of the election “isn’t that they love us; it was because they want us to stop things.” On the night of the election, McConnell issued a statement saying:

Americans have been speaking out for two years to cut wasteful Washington spending, reduce the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy, and help create sustainable, private-sector jobs…[and] we are hopeful the administration and Democrat leaders will change course.

The Senate Democrats, in their apparently poll-driven “Day After” statement, said they heard the voters saying that the two parties should “work together” (however unlikely that was) to improve the state of the middle class; at the same time they wanted the Democrats to “fight” (a word repeated often) for the middle class, to provide them decent jobs and education. They said that they heard the voters tell them that “the time for politics is over.” Numerous Democrats also privately blamed Obama for his air of detachment or for not seeming to understand the plight of those hurt by the recession; and many blamed the missteps of his ham-handed White House staff members.

The underlying factor of the election was of course the weak economy, but voters were heard to want varying things done about it; and beyond the economy there were voters who had a wide variety of conflicting views. Thus, the 2010 midterm election didn’t have any one meaning; and it’s prone to overinterpretation by both sides. Therein lies the danger.

The Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducts the highly respected NBC/Wall Street Journal poll with the Republican Bill McIntruff, said in an interview that the 2010 vote was

a continuation of 2004 and 2006; a public that was repulsed with what they saw was going on in Washington. And now they’re scared to death about the economy: when a company leaves they think it’s never coming back. They think their situation is desperate. So they took a big whack at the House of Representatives—as much as we’ve seen in seventy years; it was not so much for as against.

The economy is going through a wrenching change, which, it’s becoming clear, will go on for quite a while. Hart maintained that the voters hadn’t yet turned against Obama—some exit polls found more anger at Wall Street than at the President. A number of Democrats point out that his approval rating (45 percent and climbing toward the end of the campaign) was higher than Ronald Reagan’s (42 percent) and Bill Clinton’s at the same time in their presidencies. But the sweeping Democratic gains of 2006 and 2008 were wiped out in a single night.

Republicans are studying the past, anxious to not repeat it. They note that Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Clinton lost Congress in the midterms and two years later went on to win reelection; something they are determined to prevent Obama from doing. Thus, when McConnell said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation shortly after the election, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he was simply speaking the plain truth. The Republican leaders are especially eager to avoid the mistakes that Newt Gingrich made—mainly in overreaching and losing to Clinton over the government shutdown in 1995.* So the experienced Republican leaders, unlike some of the incoming Tea Party freshmen, aren’t interested in causing a government shutdown. But a major question is whether Obama has the guile and toughness that Clinton did in fighting Gingrich. Surely, the former congressman and Republican strategist Vim Weber says, the Republicans are going to test him in some way.


The President seems to be shrinking and becoming more ineffectual before our eyes. Even his standing in the world seems to be eroding. As might have been expected, Obama achieved no reduction of the “partisan bickering” that he, like a series of presidential candidates, had vowed to reduce. John Podesta, founder and chairman of the Center for American Progress, the head of Obama’s transition, and a Clinton chief of staff, told me in an interview, “Obama built his 2008 campaign on trying to do big things and changing the dynamic of Washington. It turned out that he couldn’t do both.” He continued, “Passing major legislation that was clearly necessary came with a cost. It gave the Republicans the opportunity to deny him the ability to fulfill his promise to independents to end the bitter partisanship.” Both Republican and Democratic voters rejected the legislative process itself—in particular on the health care bill, which they saw as taking too long, involving too many “back-room deals,” and becoming too rancorous. The young voters who were among Obama’s strongest supporters in 2008 didn’t turn out in large numbers (they usually don’t in midterm elections), despite Obama’s hectic late election campaign that took him to a number of college campuses; nor did minority voters.

To the dismay of the White House, a substantial number of women switched over to the Republicans because of their fears about the economy, somehow under the illusion that a change of party would make things better for them; so did the elderly, alarmed by the prospect that Medicare expenditures would be cut by half, as proposed in the health care bill (despite the administration’s insistence that this wouldn’t lower their benefits). Many also apparently fear the removal of “Cadillac plans” for Medicare, which include special benefits. The withdrawal of support by these groups hurt many Democrats down the line.

If, as Peter Hart says, the voters hadn’t yet turned on Obama, he hardly helped those Democrats who were running in tight races. Numerous Democrats complained (off the record, for fear of alienating the White House) that he and his aides didn’t seem to grasp the hurt and anxiety that was troubling so much of the public. Obama is not given to Clintonian expressions of “I feel your pain.” Once they got to the White House, Obama and his campaign team (virtually all of his top assistants) seemed to live in a hermetically sealed box—cut off from and not interested in what was going on outside, or what experienced people who tried to help them had to say. No one could dispute the fact that Obama was a good family man who dined with his wife and children each night and then turned to his briefing papers. To the extent that the Obamas went out in Washington, it was on their “date night,” or, so far as is known, to the Georgetown apartment of their close friend Valerie Jarrett, who also works at the White House. True, the Beltway isn’t the country, but there are people here who could have helped the Obama team navigate its shark-filled waters.

Of course Obama should have gotten out of Washington more and listened to people, not just talked at them; and, as Walter Mondale said recently, he should have gotten rid of “those idiot boards”—the TelePrompters on which the great orator has been strangely dependent and which divide him from his audiences. Last year, a friend of mine was invited to a Hanukkah party that the Obamas gave for prominent Jews (a group with whom there had been tensions), and after the Obamas descended the grand stairway, they stood in the foyer briefly, the President made a few remarks and shook a few hands, and back up the stairs they went. No mingling.

In their first two years, the Obamas have seemed a bit tone-deaf: there were too many vacations while people were hurting, especially Michelle’s extravagant trip to Spain. (I’m as interested in Michelle’s clothes as the next woman but at the same time think she and her staff are too focused on her looking smashing, which she does. Her wardrobe seems quite extensive for these troubled times.)

Barack Obama’s personality has been much mulled over in the past two years, but it seems inescapable that his high self-esteem often slides over the thin line to arrogance, which trickles down (with some exceptions) to much of his staff, some of whom are downright rude to all but a chosen few. Obama has seemed uninterested in anyone but his immediate group, and three of the four members of his immediate circle—Jarrett, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod—had had no experience in governing. The fourth, Rahm Emanuel, expressed himself with such flippancy, arrogance, and overuse of the F-word that he offended not just members of Congress but also would-be allies of the President.


Vice President Joe Biden, who is liked on Capitol Hill, was virtually shut out of the dealings with people in Congress in the first two years—“I can handle them,” Obama told Biden—but Biden is now expected to be given a larger role as part of the White House’s new determination to “reach out.” (A few months ago highly placed members of the staff also swore they would “reach out,” but that seemed to last for just a few days.) One of the oddest aspects of Obama’s persona is that someone who seems so confident has insisted thus far in having people around him with whom he is said to be “comfortable.”

For example, Tom Donilon, his recently appointed national security adviser (a promotion from his role as deputy), is by all accounts a capable man but is no one’s idea of a serious strategic thinker. The explanation I was given for Donilon’s being given his new position was that “the President is comfortable with him.” Just as Obama is described as pleased with himself, he has been treated with hero worship by much of his staff. After all, he had taken on the formidable Clintons, and, against the expectation of almost all the pundits and the experts, he had beaten them. Why should he listen to those who had doubted him? A common complaint about the Obama White House in the first two years has been that there were no “grown-ups” around, people who knew more about governing and who would tell Obama that he was wrong. When people tried to suggest someone who should be brought in, that person was rejected as “not one of ours.” Joe Biden is said to argue with Obama on issues, such as Afghanistan, but not to get into the management of the White House.

Those who supported Obama in 2008 expected him to be able to move public opinion, to get people to follow him. The fact that the Obama White House has been so poor at “messaging” baffles even his strongest supporters. In fact, he had no overall message. As Winston Churchill put it, there was no theme to his pudding. When I asked a White House aide about this, he pointed to what had been billed as a “major speech on the economy,” at Georgetown University in April 2009. But the speech was utterly forgettable—and forgotten. One ally attributes this problem to the inexperience of both Obama and his top staff. An ally says, “You can’t leave a message if you don’t have a strategy and you don’t know where you’re going.” Another says, “They had something that worked in the campaign but didn’t work in the White House.”

Thus, Obama didn’t see the need to explain what he was doing. His 2010 campaign themes seemed to wander all over the place: Stanley Greenberg, a pollster and former aide to Bill Clinton, said that Obama’s oft-used theme, that we shouldn’t go back to the Bush days, actually tested negatively, because people didn’t believe that the country was making economic progress.

So Obama’s biggest failure was not to be the leader that so many expected him to be. The jubilation that surrounded his swearing-in may have gone to his head, while the celebrants overlooked that there were plenty of people out there who were not overjoyed at the advent of a black president, or even a Democrat. Obama was, apparently in his own estimation, so smart and so adored that he seems to have felt no need to explain—and explain again—to the country what he was doing and to take the country along with him. This failure to put his programs across came up a few times in the 2010 campaign.

More than once, people in town hall meetings told him that they were behind him but were having great trouble trying to defend or explain his agenda. In a backyard gathering on October 21 he made the most awkward reply of those I heard: “Our attitude was that we just had to get the policies right and we didn’t always think about making sure we got the advertising properly about what was going on.” Advertising. (When I mentioned this to a Democratic senator who was generally supportive of Obama, this ordinarily polite man responded, “Bullocks! What policies?”)

The risk-averse Obama had left it to Congress to write the big bills such as on the economic stimulus and health care (with strong participation by White House aides). But he kept up this line of defense all the way through to his pathetic press conference on the day after the election. In these comments, Obama gave away the devastating fact that he didn’t really understand the role of the president as leader. A friend of the Obama administration said to me, “Their definition of governing is passing bills.” Someone else relatively close to the White House explained that since Obama had been so criticized for being “arrogant” and “aloof,” he had to eat large portions of humble pie. (“And I take responsibility for that,” Obama said again and again.)

We can never know if Obama’s programs would have gone down better with the public had he stood up more forthrightly to the steady attacks of the Republicans and their allies, not to mention lies. Perhaps there were other reasons, beyond the “communications” problem that the White House seems to have settled on, for the relative unpopularity of some of Obama’s policies. Perhaps it was the policies themselves.In fact, the despised TARP program and the auto company and large bank bailouts were begun under his predecessor, something Obama could have made clearer and that George W. Bush might have had the good grace to say when his successor was being assailed for them.

Lawrence Summers, Obama’s outgoing chief economic adviser, argues that Obama’s policies weren’t more popular because people just didn’t feel their effects. As for the stimulus bill, Summers says, “Macroeconomics works with a lag time of six to eighteen months.” The stimulus program may well have been too small, but it was all that the administration could get from Congress. By most economic measures, the stimulus program added 2.5 to 3.5 percent to the Gross National Product. Some liberal economists argued that it should have been larger, but they did not have to deal with the realities that the administration faced. The Democratic leaders had instructed the White House not to ask for even a trillion dollars, saying that their members would rebel at such a number. To get enough votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, the administration had to agree to some final cuts made by a group led by three moderates. The final amount was $787 billion, about 80 percent of what had been asked for; this is not atypical.

The infrastructure projects, which took up about a third of the stimulus bill, were expected to be delayed because of the complicated process of agency approval; but some others weren’t as “shovel ready” as they had been heralded. In October, Obama called for $50 billion more for infrastructure projects, but he didn’t make much effort to sell them, and they were met with opposition on all sides. The public just doesn’t believe that the first stimulus program created jobs, though it did. Soon, little was heard of this proposal, but I’m told that Obama plans to offer it again in his State of the Union address and his budgets. Christina Romer, then chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, made an epic mistake by predicting early in 2009 that the stimulus program would lead to 8 percent unemployment, a pronouncement apparently pushed on her by the political aides, who wanted to drape the stimulus proposal in optimism. The Republicans feasted on her prediction while unemployment stubbornly hung on at 9.6 percent up until the election.

It’s never a good idea for government officials to offer specific predictions—whether the subject is the economy, war, or diplomacy. At the insistence of most of the administration’s economists, a sizable tax cut for the middle class in the stimulus bill was doled out in small droplets in the form of deductions in people’s paychecks—with the result that they were barely noticed.

Despite Republicans’ insistence that Obama’s health care program (or “Obamacare,” as they call it), should be repealed, exit polls showed the voters to be almost evenly divided between those who wanted it to be repealed and those who wanted it maintained or even expanded. But the Republicans are fixated on, if not repealing it—Obama will veto any such bill—then undermining it one way or another. It can also be expected to be the subject of investigation in the next Congress. Most of its main provisions aren’t scheduled to go into effect until 2013, though small and presumably popular pieces of the health care bill have already been implemented (for example, offspring can stay on their parents’ insurance until they turn twenty-six, and children up to the age of eighteen cannot be denied coverage because of preexisting conditions). Those who thought they’d get new or improved health insurance right away were disappointed, and others were angered as insurance companies raised their rates.

Even Obama, in his press conference reacting to the election, said there are parts of the health bill that need a second look—thus, as is his wont, capitulating before the fight had begun—just as he seems to be doing in the extension of Bush’s tax cuts, which, according to a recent New York Times piece, were followed by record low economic growth, even before the crash. Another study says that tax cuts for the rich are the single worst way to create jobs.

So, why are the Republicans so worked up about the health care bill? Vin Weber says that repeal of the health care plan “was a central feature of almost every Republican who ran.” He explained in an interview:

For the right it’s ideological Armageddon. Conservatives believe it’s going to take us to a single-payer system and that’s a symbol of where they think Obama wants to take this country—to socialism. So they don’t want to stop fighting about it until the battle is over. The left base loves it even though they think it was inadequate; they, too, think it will take them to a single-payer system. It’s going to be trench warfare, as in World War I.

Weber says the Republicans’ plan, which unites the mainstream Republicans with the Tea Party, is to fight the health care bill on three fronts: in Washington, to cripple it by stripping away the funds to implement it; in the state capitols, where governors are resisting implementation on fiscal grounds; and in suits against it by state attorney generals, about twenty thus far, who have challenged in court, on constitutional grounds, the requirement that people buy insurance.

The effects of the election went even deeper than they seemed if one considered the longer run. For one thing, combined with some previous elections it virtually wiped out the middle of both parties. While the liberal Democrats, elected in safe districts, largely held on to their seats, about a third of the moderates, or what might be called Rahm Democrats—those chosen by Rahm Emanuel when he headed the House Democratic Campaign Committee to run in essentially Republican districts—were defeated. So the House Democratic caucus will be more liberal than before, and, under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi, it will be strongly resistant to any inclination on Obama’s part to compromise. (As an admirer of Pelosi, I have to say that her determination to want to continue to head her party is understandable as a personal decision—she’s not going to be driven out by the boys who made her a target and the moneyed interests who took out the ads against her. This probably wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t a woman; but I’m not sure her decision to stay on was best for her party. It stirred up considerable tensions within the Democratic caucus, and Pelosi is in danger of wearing out her welcome with the public.) And as of the 2010 election the Democratic Party lost strength in the South and the Midwest industrial states (where Hillary Clinton had defeated Obama), and essentially returned to being the party of both coasts.

Another long-term effect of this election, taking place as it did during a decennial year and therefore leading to redistricting, is that, as a result of Democratic losses of nineteen state legislative bodies, the Democrats are likely to lose ten to fifteen House seats in 2012; moreover, the Democrats lost five governorships and are expected to lose at least five electoral votes as a result of redistricting. Therefore, the House may not be handed back to the Democrats as quickly as many expect. Besides that, Republicans will be fearful of the power of the Tea Party, which in the primaries defeated eight establishment Republicans, including three incumbents.

For those who thought they’d never think “poor Mitch,” the time may have come. His primary candidate in Kentucky was defeated by Rand Paul. In the Senate, he is buffeted on all sides: Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, a rising demagogue and the self-appointed king of the Tea Party, who pushed him to come out against earmarks—a symbolic issue that would have caused infinitesimal budget savings. Though they picked up six seats, some establishment Republicans blame DeMint for costing the Republicans control of the Senate, or an even split, since some of the Tea Party candidates were out-and-out unelectable.

John Kyl, the dour Arizonan, has thus far vetoed the lame duck Congress’s taking up of the START Treaty with Russia—for the time being putting into question whether this treaty would ever be ratified by the Senate. A Republican senator told me, “Kyl controls the Republican caucus.” So Republicans in both chambers can be expected to move to the right. The Republican leaders’ insolent declining of the President of the United States’ invitation to meet and dine with him at the White House a little over a week after the election—pleading “scheduling conflicts” (this just isn’t done)—was a sign of what is to come.

—November 22, 2010

This Issue

December 23, 2010