Normally, midterm elections provide voters a scorecard for their assessment of an administration’s performance. Popular presidents encourage this by highlighting their successes, while unpopular presidents attempt to shift the blame. They either target Congress and/or blame their predecessor, and create a new agenda to address the dissatisfaction of voters on their top priorities.
Barack Obama’s recent attempts to shift blame shows that the White House grasps his declining popularity and credibility, but Obama has made himself rather than voter priorities the centerpiece of the White House message in the midterms – and that bodes ill for the next two years.
To some extent, Obama has followed this strategy since losing the House in 2010, and even before that. When his big economic stimulus didn’t turn the economy around, Obama blamed the George W. Bush administration’s policies and claimed that he and his team didn’t understand the depth of the hole from which they had to start. That argument didn’t prevent Republicans from winning the biggest midterm victory in 70 years, but that result did allow Obama to blame House Republicans when the stimulus and other Obama economic policies failed to solve the problem of chronic joblessness.
From that point forward, Obama fought a holding pattern, in part to protect Obamacare and in part to force the House to capitulate on the rest of his agenda. Normal-order budgets became a thing of the past, as Senate Democrats refused to produce the budget authorizations required of them under the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974.
Obama and his allies in the Senate staged a series of fiscal “cliffs” over the next two-plus years, akin to games of chicken over the federal budget, in an ultimately futile attempt to force Republicans to end the Bush tax cuts and buckle under on higher spending.
The election of 2012 was supposed to resolve the standoff. Republicans thought Obama would be a one-term president, and Democrats thought that anger over obstructionism added to the superior get-out-the-vote efforts from the Obama campaign would allow them to regain the House. In the end, neither were true; voters chose the status quo instead, giving Obama the weakest re-election win in history and Republicans a slightly smaller majority in the House.
The message: voters expected all sides to work together to focus on the priorities of the electorate and not the hobby horses of the Beltway. At first, the message appeared to get through. Senate Democrats actually approved their first budget in four years, and the two parties attempted to reach a compromise on immigration. That effort ground to a halt after the scandals at the IRS. Then the NSA erupted, damaging the credibility of the Obama administration, especially after the Department of Justice sat on its IRS probe.
Other failures soon followed, domestic and foreign: the abortive Syrian intervention, the Obamacare rollout disaster, and the exposure of widespread fraud and corruption at the Department of Veteran Affairs. That continued into this month’s immigration crisis and Obama’s refusal to go to the border he once claimed was “secure,” arguing that it was “a photo op,” on a trip which featured a number of fundraisers and a billiards game played with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper for the benefit of photographers.
All of this undermined confidence in the Obama administration and sent the President’s poll numbers into a tailspin over the last few months. Instead of clearing the decks and acting, well, presidential, Obama has reacted by making himself the focus and stringing together an ad-hoc agenda of low-priority issues to distract from his leadership crisis.
The White House and its allies have spent the last couple of weeks hyperventilating about the Hobby Lobby decision with little connection to reality, while Obama has complained more than ever that opposition to his policies and his performance is personal rather than legitimate.
That seems like a strange strategy for the midterm elections, especially with the public souring on Obama’s leadership. Instead of highlighting new directions on voter priorities like the economy, jobs, and government dysfunction -- clearly on display at the VA and IRS -- Democrats are talking about income inequality (a priority for 3 percent) and birth control (which doesn’t even appear on Gallup’s list of top voter-identified priorities).
Obama seems to welcome the idea of making the midterms a referendum on himself and his personal battles, even if Democrats want the focus to be almost anywhere else. Meanwhile, nothing gets done unless it rises to a crisis level, and then only after endless rounds of brinksmanship. We’re back to the status quo of 2011-13.
Essentially, we have a lame-duck presidency already in action. Contrast that with the final two years of the Bush administration after the Democratic midterm sweep of 2006. There was plenty of personal animosity, accusations of incompetence and executive abuse of power, and threats of investigations. However, Bush still worked with the opposition well enough to get a budget passed, added troops in Iraq for the surge, and eventually launched TARP on a bipartisan basis. Bush didn’t get everything he wanted, but he kept business running in Washington DC.
This latest strategy shows that the lame-duck presidency will persist until 2017. The Washington Post’s Election Lab says the GOP has an 86 percent chance of winning control of the Senate and a 99 percent chance of holding the House. If that comes to pass, the drama will move from Capitol Hill, where Senate Democrats have stifled Republican economic policy, to the White House, where Obama has issued only a handful of vetoes. Rather than acknowledge that voters want a change in direction, Obama will almost certainly opt to keep up the pretense that Congress just dislikes him personally, and play for the 2016 elections.
If Democrats beat the odds and keep control of the Senate, all that will mean is a continuation of the current status quo and stalemate on Capitol Hill. Obama will claim that as a mandate to stay the course and ignore both voter priorities and his opposition. The only way this calculus changes is if Democrats manage to win both chambers of Congress, but with Obama’s approval ratings in the low 40s and heading downward, the chances of that happening are somewhere between slim and none – and much closer to none.
While the midterm elections matter to the GOP for other reasons – the ability to constrain Obama’s options on presidential appointments and judicial nominations, as well as establishing a mandate for their opposition – it won’t change much in the long run. The three-year lame duck status of the Barack Obama presidency is all but set in stone, and set there by the man himself.
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