A Midterm Examination

The voters have spoken, but what did they say? Columbia political scientist Lincoln Mitchell '96GSAS assesses the 2010 elections.

by Lincoln Mitchell ’96GSAS Published Winter 2010-11
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Out of touch?

The second error the White House made indicated a political blind spot that is surprising given how well the Obama team both communicated and understood the gestalt of the electorate during the 2008 campaign. Critics and supporters of the current president all recognize that Obama came into office at a difficult time. Whether he has done a good job since then and whether the problems were insurmountable in a two-year period can be argued, but for most voters this debate is moot.

Voters care far more about outcomes, particularly economic conditions, than they do about where blame should be assigned, or how hard a president is trying, or how obstructive either party is being. President Obama’s inability to turn the economy around in only two years should not have shocked anyone, but the failure of the administration to develop an appropriate narrative on the subject is puzzling.

As the election approached, communication from the White House, and the Democratic Party generally, seemed to move in two related directions: reiterating the extent of the mess that had been inherited from the previous administration, and seeking to gain credit for the successes of the Obama administration. But given the problems confronting ordinary Americans — widespread unemployment, a deflated housing market, and ongoing economic fear and uncertainty — these arguments sounded irrelevant and even insensitive.

Beyond that, the extent of Obama’s accomplishments is a matter of debate. The White House continues to describe the health-care reform bill, passed into law in March 2010, as a major, even historic, accomplishment, but the bill has been broadly criticized from the left and the right. More important, trumpeting a health-care reform bill at a time when an estimated 59 million Americans are without health insurance (the provisions that cover most Americans don’t kick in until 2014) is sufficiently tin-eared to border on insulting. Similarly, while many economists believe that the economic stimulus bill saved the financial system from complete collapse, the argument that things could be a lot worse, a seeming source of great pride in the White House, is cold comfort if you are unemployed or cannot pay your mortgage. This inability to gauge the sentiments of the American people was exemplified last year when the White House floated the term jobless recovery as a way of showing that they were turning the economy around. It is baffling that the White House did not see that this phrase, and the attitude it represented, was not going to be well received by an angry electorate.

Even as a candidate, Obama was vulnerable to charges of being out of touch and aloof. The White House communications strategy in the months leading up to the 2010 midterms hardly dispelled these perceptions. In times of severe economic problems, presidents who want to survive politically must either solve the crisis or demonstrate their empathy and concern for the people. Obama did neither.

Reading the tea leaves

The midterm election returns Washington to a divided government with one house of Congress controlled by the party that is not the president’s. This is not unusual, since a similar dynamic — at least one house falling to the opposition — was in place during the last two years of George W. Bush’s presidency, the last six years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and the entire presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. The difference now is that the partisan rancor is stronger than ever. During the Reagan administration, the Democratic majorities included many Southern conservative Democrats, who frequently voted with the president. No comparable situation exists today. Additionally, with no clear end in sight to the country’s economic problems, and even less agreement about how to fix them, the incentive to work together and share the credit for accomplishments will be outweighed for both parties by the inducement to keep the partisan pressure strong and to blame the other party for the inevitable ongoing turmoil.

The biggest strategic danger for both parties lies in misinterpreting the election results. For the Republicans, this would mean viewing their win as a triumph of the radical right-wing ideology that came to dominate their party in 2010. If they aggressively seek to implement policies based on this ideology, their popularity will suffer, along with their party’s outlook in 2012. The Republican leadership needs to find a way to temper expectations and keep the more radical members of the new Congress from forcing the party to overplay its political hand.

The Democrats, and the White House, need to significantly recalibrate their message. President Obama must convince voters that he cares about their economic suffering — a tall order given both the failure of the White House to persuade voters of this previously and the continued Republican campaign against the president. But if the White House is able to make the case, the president can reinsert himself into the heart of the political process. If not, the Obama presidency will have substantially ended, regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office.

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