Shellacking II: The Sequel

Column: The 2014 election was decided before Obama’s second term began

President Barack Obama walks down the stairs of Air Force One upon his arrival in the rain at Andrews Air Force Base / AP
May 2, 2014

Fitting, I thought, when I saw Air Force One returning to Andrews Air Force Base in the rain the other day. The weather had not only assumed the character of President Obama’s demeanor, it had become a physical representation of the sentiments inside his administration, inside Democratic circles in Washington. Those sentiments are dark, foreboding, cloudy, and gloomy. The president’s foreign policy is under attack, his agenda is stalled in Congress, and his signature program remains unpopular. A second repudiation of Obama, a second shellacking, may be at hand.

Less than a third of the country says America is headed in the right direction. The Democrats maintain the slimmest of leads—0.8 percent—on the congressional generic ballot, but Republicans are known to do better on Election Day ballots than on generic ones. The Real Clear Politics average of polls has Obama’s approval rating at about 44 percent. That’s where it was on Election Day 2010. Disapproval of Obamacare is also about where it was on Election Day 2010. That day saw the best performance by Republicans in a midterm election since 1946, and the best performance by Republicans in state legislative races since 1928.

Let’s be empirical. The Democrats, according to one political science model, have a one percent chance of recapturing the House in 2014. According to other models, the Republicans are either "slight favorites" or just plain favorites to control the Senate next year. (On Thursday, the New York Times forecast a 54 percent chance of a Republican Senate takeover.) The models can change, of course. That’s what models do. And models can be wrong—they often are, in fact. But, for the time being, the same models that our educated classes trumpeted during the 2012 election predict a happy day for Republicans on Nov. 4. And so I, in turn, am happy to base my analysis on them.

What brought Obama to this point? The course was set even before Obama’s second term began, when he assumed that the horrific events in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012 would galvanize public support for the sort of gun control legislation that the public had rejected ever since it turned out the Democratic Congress after the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. Obama’s assumption was mistaken and, despite millions in outside spending by the liberal billionaire Michael Bloomberg, gun control has gone nowhere.

Indeed, the bad will engendered by the gun control debate probably had an influence over Republicans in Congress, who otherwise might have supported an immigration reform bill last year. As it turned out the oppositional energies of the GOP base, of conservatives, and even of mainstream Republicans in Congress, prevented House leaders from bringing the Senate immigration bill, or any immigration bill, to the floor. The president was denied a second-term victory.

Obama’s decision to nominate Chuck Hagel and John Kerry to top administration posts has also brought us to where we are today, with a majority disapproving of the president’s foreign policy. The ferocious struggle over Hagel’s nomination in particular, which occurred during the gun control debate, had to have drained the administration’s energy. Neither Hagel nor Kerry has performed with distinction. Hagel sees it as his job to bring about the end of American military dominance, and Kerry seems to think it’s his job to fly around the world for meetings with the Russian foreign minister.

Together, Obama, Hagel, and Kerry have presided over the worst intelligence breach in American history, historic cuts to American defenses, an embarrassing I-was-for-bombing-before-I-was-against-it in Syria, a kick-the-can-down-the-road nuclear agreement with Iran, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. No one, not even an American who "wants to pull back from the world stage," approves of incompetence in high office. Yet that is precisely what we see every day.

Perhaps Obama’s greatest mistake came long, long before his second term, in the summer of 2009, when he decided that the stimulus had solved the problem of economic recovery, and he could turn to the questions that occupy most of his brain, questions of distributive justice. If the economy was no longer a problem, if it had been or would be fixed by a combination of bailouts, stress tests, and government spending, then Obama could concentrate on using his power to distribute goods according to his subjective principles of fairness.

The result was Obamacare, which continues to hurt the president and his party. It was Obamacare that contributed to Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, thereby undermining the president’s subsequent attempts to "pivot" to the economy. The stimulus’ apparent non-effect on the real-world economy did not help his argument, either.

A good rule in politics is that the side wanting to avoid a debate is usually the side losing the debate. Obama wants to avoid the Obamacare debate to such an extent that he has repeatedly declared it to be "over." Never mind that no political question is permanently settled, never mind that if Obama had adopted his own logic after the defeat of Hillary-Care there would be no Obamacare to begin with. What matters to Obama is that the 2014 election be fought on his terms, that the Democrats are free to exploit the gender gap and the compassion gap to protect their Senate majority. I doubt he will succeed, because while Obamacare has proven to be a vote-driving issue, the minimum wage and climate change have not.

Originally presented to the public as a salvific figure, one who would lead America to the land beyond petty special interests, Obama has been revealed as a prisoner of precisely those interests. The decision to delay the Keystone Pipeline at the behest of a liberal billionaire is a case in point. So, too, are his campaigns for a federal minimum wage increase (which benefits unions and high-minimum-wage Democratic strongholds) and equal pay legislation (which benefits trial lawyers). His government is likely to approve two mergers that will benefit corporate donors to his campaigns. The tenor of his last two years in office depends on his ability to frighten women and minorities to the polls.

Will the clouds still be out for the president on Election Day? After the experience of 2012 I am venturing no predictions. Some unexpected event will have to occur, something bizarre will have to happen, to bring the Democrats good fortune, to brighten the sky for Obama and for his party. Fortunately for him, there is a major, long-lived American institution that specializes in making life easier for liberals.

It’s called the Republican Party.