If 2010 election chastens Obama, what’s the 2012 outlook?

What a “chastened” Obama might mean looking forward to 2012

With polls predicting a significant increase for Republicans in both the House and the Senate, political pundits have begun considering what this might mean for the Obama Presidency over the next two years, as well as the his chances for reelection in 2012.

Over the past 60 years, there have been several “correcting” mid-term elections. The results do not, however, provide us with a clear vision as to how the next presidential election will turn out. Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Carter and Clinton each experienced “correcting” mid-term elections.

Year President (party) Change in House Change in Senate
1946 Truman (D) Republicans +55 Republicans +12
1952 Eisenhower (R) Democrats + 19 Democrats + 2
1966 Johnson (D) Republicans + 47 Republicans + 3
1978 Carter (D) Republicans + 15 Republicans + 3
1994 Clinton (D) Republicans + 54 Republicans + 8

Three of these five presidents (Truman, Eisenhower and Clinton) went on to win reelection two years later, following the “correcting” mid-term elections. Carter lost and Johnson, facing a significant challenge from within his own party, chose not to seek reelection. From this, we can conclude that the correcting mid-term election is not a strong predictor of presidential elections two years later. We need to dig a bit deeper to consider whether presidential response to a correcting mid-term election may be a better predictor.

For this, we will consider a recent essay by Victor Davis Hanson which looked at the responses of both Clinton and Carter to mid-term losses by their party. Hanson writes:

“Jimmy Carter stuck to his liberal agenda after suffering a modest rebuke in the 1978 midterms amid sky-high inflation, interest rates, and unemployment. He didn’t take the voters’ hint and went on to get clobbered two years later by Ronald Reagan. In contrast, after the Democratic party was slaughtered in the 1994 midterms a triangulating Bill Clinton moved to the center and handily won reelection in 1996.”

Hanson suggests that the positioning of Clinton and Carter explains why Clinton won re-election and Carter did not. By moderating his positions, Clinton was able to re-capture the moderate portion of the electorate that his party had lost in 1994.

Do these lessens of 1978 and 1994 show President Obama the direction he must turn in order to position himself well for his reelection bid in 2012? Hanson is not convinced. He argues that a significant Republican victory in November may actually give Obama a chance to maintain his liberal, albeit stalled agenda, all the while blaming a lack of progress on an obstructionist Congress.

While his liberal agenda will be stalled, the nation will nonetheless see improving economic conditions while the nation slowly works its way out of the recession, in part due to the new stability and moderation in government that will be provided with divided party control. Hanson concludes that Obama need not moderate his positions in order to win in 2012. Is he correct?

Clinton agreed to a balanced budget and welfare reform with the newly elected Congress of 1994. Both of these were done prior to Clinton’s reelection in 1996 and were largely the reason that he was able to rebound from 1994. Had he not had this legislation with his signature on it, would he have been able to convince the American public that he was indeed a “New Democrat?” Clinton’s chief political advisor for the 1996 election certainly thought that this was essential to his reelection success. Dick Morris made clear that had Clinton not moderated, he would have lost. Dole was ready to attack on welfare and the rising budget deficits. Clinton took the issues away by signing the welfare reform law and balancing the budget.

This is where I think Hanson gets things wrong: Clinton was able to win was because he moderated to make himself more acceptable to the electorate. Can Obama do the same? Here is the comparable example on the big issues of our day: the increasingly unpopular Healthcare Reform bill and the rising national debt. Will he agree to reform his law in a dramatic way and significantly reduce government spending? He would need to do this before the 2012 election in order to follow the Clinton model. Had Clinton not cooperated with the Republican Congress, he would have been tagged with the label of “too liberal” and would have had a far more difficult time seeking reelection in 1996.

One final note on the election of 1996: even with the successful co-opting of the key issues of the debt and welfare reform, Clinton’s reelection was also due in part to two other factors, including a very weak Republican candidate (Bob Dole) and Ross Perot’s running on the Reform Party ticket. The final outcome in 1996 had Clinton failing to break the 50% threshold (coming in at 49.2%) and Ross Perot pulling 8.4% of the vote. Had the Republicans put forth a more formidable candidate and had Perot not run, it is likely that the race would have been much closer.

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