Saturday, November 26, 2016
The Butcher's Bill. Democratic LOSSES in the Age of Obama.
President Barack Obama has declared he might not follow the tradition of ex-presidents refusing to comment publicly on their successors. In a postelection press conference, he said:
This might not be a good thing for the Democratic party. While Obama's standing with the country has held more or less firm, he has overseen a down-ballot rout during his tenure.
When President Obama took office in 2009, Democrats claimed 257 House seats, 60 Senate seats (after Arlen Specter switched sides), 28 governorships, and total control of 27 state legislatures. Many pundits figured that the Republican party was turning into nothing more than a regional coalition, with little strength outside the South.
Such fanciful notions were dispatched at the end of that year. Chris Christie beat incumbent Jon Corzine in the New Jersey governor's race, which was inconsistent with the hypothesis of Republican doom. Perhaps more striking was Bob McDonnell's 17-point victory over Creigh Deeds for the governorship of Virginia—a formerly red, newly purple state that was supposedly on its way to becoming solidly blue. Three months later, the political world was shocked once more when Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in Massachusetts by 5 points, thereby ending the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority.
Those races served as a prelude for the Democrats' midterm debacle of 2010. The party lost a net 63 seats in the House, as the GOP claimed its biggest majority in the lower chamber since the Great Depression. The Democrats also lost 6 seats in the Senate, including in blue redoubts such as Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. On net, the party lost 6 governorships and its total control of state legislatures slipped to 16.
The next cycle was a rebound of sorts for Democrats, but the details were less impressive than the headlines. Obama won reelection comfortably over Mitt Romney, but he did so with 3.6 million fewer votes than he received in 2008. Such a victory is without precedent. Every incumbent president who has won election to a second term did so by increasing his total votes—except Obama, in 2012. Down-ballot, the Democrats' performance was similarly mediocre. The party netted eight House seats, two Senate seats, and total control of three more state legislatures. Meanwhile, they lost the governorship of North Carolina.
The 2014 cycle was another disaster for the Democrats. When the dust settled, the Republican party—which had been all but left for dead just five years prior—was clearly the dominant coalition in the states. The GOP held 247 House seats, 54 Senate seats, 31 governorships, and total control of 30 state legislatures. The only major elected office still controlled by the Democrats was the White House, which, of course, the party just lost. The recent election amounted to no substantial change in the balance of power throughout the rest of the country: The Democrats picked up two Senate seats but lost a net three governorships; they won six U.S. House seats, but on balance the GOP consolidated its hold on state legislatures.
To be sure, it is typical for the party of the president to shed offices during his tenure. Generally speaking, voters tend to utilize the opposing party as a way to check the president—and over the course of eight years this can amount to a fairly substantial shift in power. Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, for instance, all entered the White House with their party in total control of Congress but left with the opposition in total control. Even under Ronald Reagan, who was enormously popular for most of his tenure, the GOP lost the Senate in 1986.
What makes Obama unique is the magnitude of his party's defeat. When he entered office, he and his party had broad control of the government. When he leaves office in two months, the opposition will have broad control of the government. That is quite extraordinary. In fact, during the postwar era, no two-term president has lost more U.S. House seats and state legislative seats than Obama.
What accounts for this? After all, Obama himself remains popular. The latest Gallup poll has his approval rating at a robust 56 percent, on par with Reagan when he left office in 1989. But that number is deceptive. Obama's approval rating only rose into positive territory during this election cycle, when he no longer dominated the headlines. Before the media focused on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, news centered on the Iran deal, Syria, Libya, immigration, gun control, Obamacare, the stimulus, and so on. The country typically disapproved of his handling of these matters, even as it still held a favorable view of him as a person.
Obama seems to have given big government a bad name. When he was elected in 2008, the exit poll found that 51 percent of Americans thought the government should do more, compared with 43 percent who thought it should do less. But in 2016, after eight years of Obama, the exit poll found that 45 percent thought the government should do more, compared with 50 percent who thought it should do less.
While people still like Obama, they haven't much cared for his policies—and time and again they have taken their frustrations out on his fellow partisans. Those hardy Democrats who have managed to survive the party's annihilation during the Obama years may think twice before asking him to jump into the political fray after he retires.