Are the midterm elections a referendum on Obamaâ€™s policies?
This cover article in The New York Times Magazine yesterday brought out some interesting points regarding Obama’s political standing heading into his first midterm elections. In evaluating his actions during the first twenty-one months of his presidency, the author, Peter Baker, implies that the midterm elections are a referendum on Obama’s policies stating that, “The left thinks he did too little: the right too much.”
Much has been written about Obama’s decline in popularity since he came into office. In reality, this decline leading up to the first midterm elections is the norm in American politics. With the exception of Richard Nixon, every president - since Gallup began its presidential polling - has dropped in popularity prior to his first midterms. In fact, Barack Obama, at a 45% approval rating, is at the same level that Bill Clinton was at the same time into his presidency (October 1994) and higher than Ronald Reagan was in October of 1982 (42%). Like Obama, both of these presidents enjoyed very high ratings gong into office; both were faced with losing significant congressional seats in their first midterms; and both were considered at the time to be losing ground for their re-elections in two years. Both, however, went on to successfully win second terms.
It is interesting to note how The New York Times reported on each of these presidents during the same timeframe into their presidency. In October of 1982, NYT journalist Howell Raines wrote an article entitled “Both Parties View Election as a Test of Reagan Policies.” According to Raines:
“With the approach of the voting on Tuesday, Republican leaders, acknowledging the harm to their candidates from the 10.1 percent national unemployment rate, said they were resigned to significant losses in the House of Representatives.”
“Mr. Reagan, just back from a campaign trip to five Western states with important Senate races, yesterday broadcast a radio appeal for patience with his economic leadership. He asked voters not to turn on his programs after only a ‘13-month trial’.''
In October of 1994, another NYT journalist, Thomas Cronin, wrote about the midterm elections being a referendum on Clinton’s policies in and article entitled “ANTIPOLITICS ’94; How Much is His Fault?” According to Cronin:
“Midterm elections are rarely America's finest hour. The guns of the out-of-office party pound away at the President. Then he fires back. This is, of course, part of the tribal ritual in which the "outs" trash the "ins" and the "ins" retaliate by castigating the obstructionist opposition, the mean-spirited media and the selfish special interests who are depicted, of course, as all thwarting "progress" -- progress, at least, as defined by those in the White House.”
Nothing has changed in regard to the 2010 midterms. The Republicans are portraying Obama as being the “typical tax-and-spend liberal”, while the Democrats are focusing on the “obstructionist opposition.” Unfortunately, both parties often tend to ignore the qualifications of the individual congressional candidates.
At the end of the day, it is apparent that Obama will lose congressional seats in this election, as happened with Reagan and Clinton in ’82 and ‘94. This appears to be standard procedure during first-time midterms. Another factor that appears to be standard procedure is the difference in each party’s handling of bipartisan issues after the elections. Barrack Obama has already come out and said that he can work with the Republicans in Congress after the elections and incorporate their “constructive” ideas into his programs. Bill Clinton also agreed to compromise with the GOP on key issues such as the School Prayer Amendment after the1994 midterms as noted in this November 1994 NYT article. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, after losing 26 seats in the house said that he would continue to work “in a bipartisan fashion,” but that “he would not bargain on principle.” This November 4, 1982 NYT article stated rather clearly that Reagan had no intention of compromising with the Democrats on anything.
In short, when a first-term president is asked if he/she will seek compromises with the opposition after major losses of congressional seats, a Democratic president will answer, “Yes, we will work with the opposition, consider their proposals and evaluate the benefit to our citizens in order to ensure that our nation moves forward.” A Republican president, on the other hand, will simply answer: