By John Irwin
In November 2010, President Barack Obama, two years removed from a somewhat easy election victory, addressed reporters and said his party suffered a “shellacking” at the polls.
Now, Obama, two years removed from a somewhat easy re-election victory, will likely address reporters again today and say something similar after the Democratic Party was whacked in most high-profile U.S. Senate and governor’s races.
On Tuesday, Republicans took over control of the Senate for the first time since 2007 and expanded its already commanding majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. And, perhaps more importantly, Republicans held onto most of the tightly contested governor’s races they were in (including Michigan’s Rick Snyder) and even pulled some shocking upsets, winning governor’s seats in deeply Democratic states including Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland and Illinois.
The night could not have gone any better for Republicans, and it could not have been more disastrous for Democrats.
It’s normal for a president’s party to lose seats during a midterm election. And 2014 was always certain to be a rough year for Democrats, since they were defending numerous Senate seats they were able to pick up during a wave of their own in 2008.
But an unfavorable map does not explain just how badly Democrats were beaten tonight.
Simply put, this was about Americans’ dissatisfaction with the way things are going right now.
The economy as a whole is making gains, but the average American isn’t feeling that recovery. Wages are stagnant, jobs are still more difficult to come by than they should be, and fewer Americans feel optimistic about the future than in quite some time, polls show. Young people, saddled with massive amounts of college debt and fewer job opportunities than in the past, know this far too well.
Where blame should fall on this is a matter of your personal politics.
But what’s not up for debate is that Tuesday’s voters, while they don’t particularly like either party, put the blame for a failure to get things done on the president, and thus on his party, first. Obama’s low approval ratings were a sign of that for the past year or so, and this midterm election proved it.
To be sure, it’s important not to over-read this midterm election. Predictions of the Democratic Party’s demise from those on the right are just as foolish as some liberals’ predictions of the end of the GOP were in 2008. And if Democrats can feel hopeful about anything (beyond wins for marijuana decriminalization and minimum wage increases in some states), it’s that the 2010 Republican wave was followed two years later by a resounding Democratic mini-wave.
Still, this is bad news for Obama and Democrats in Washington. The president, at least initially, might feel the need politically to tack toward the GOP on certain issues ranging from immigration reform to energy. The president has little leverage over Republicans in Congress beyond his veto pen, so expect Republicans to try to force Obama’s hand and make him move to the right on several issues. It’s not impossible to imagine soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell overhauling filibuster rules to make it easier to pass House Republican legislation through the Senate and onto Obama’s desk for a potential veto.
And Obama’s “go it alone” strategy of avoiding action through an historically unproductive Congress via executive orders? That’s likely taken a backseat for a bit of a while, as well. The president had planned to take executive action to legalize a number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. after the election, but that effort might be significantly scaled back in the wake of his party’s defeats. Immigration reform by fiat might’ve worked with a Democratic Senate, but a Republican Congress makes it tougher. The threat of impeachment from the right, no matter how far-fetched the legal basis for it, will always loom, and amnesty via executive order might be the thing that makes it happen. (Or, maybe not.)
There’s a chance the GOP Congress and Obama can get some things done, namely on issues where Obama and liberal Democrats don’t see eye-to-eye. The chances of an international trade agreement with Asian-Pacific nations likely rose last night, as conservative Republicans tend to be more supportive of one than liberal Democrats. On energy, Obama might be able to carve out a small alternative energy or carbon emissions measure out of the GOP in exchange for approving the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. And while comprehensive tax reform will be nearly impossible, the president and Republicans might be able to find common ground on at least a minor compromise on corporate taxes, which both sides see as too high.
But don’t expect anything major to change on the passing-legislation front. Obama, who will never be on the ballot again, will likely feel no need to make a major jump too far to the right. And congressional Republicans and Democrats are likely to be even further polarized, as political scientist Alan Abramowitz told the Washington Post.
“We’ll have a Republican caucus that is more conservative than it is now, and a Democratic caucus that is more liberal than it is now, (because) you’re subtracting moderates from the Democratic caucus, and adding very conservative Republicans to the GOP caucus,” he said.
So, expect more of the same maddening gridlock out of Washington, and don’t be hoping much for any of the systemic changes that need to take place to make sure the economic world students will soon be entering doesn’t only benefit top earners.