If Obama plays it right, he can win re-election like Clinton
The Republican Party took control of the US House of Representatives this week, winning more than 50 seats that had been held by the Democrats and knocking off some powerful incumbents in the process. Many of the newly elected congressmen ran campaigns focusing on the failures of the president's policies, with healthcare reform playing a prominent role.
Part of the storyline of this week's elections in the United States, yes. But go back to 1994 and the sting of defeat the Obama administration is now feeling was also experienced then by Bill Clinton, who was criticised for overreaching on health care, and by his fellow Democrats. Sixteen years ago, the Newt Gingrich-led right-wing branch of the Republican Party with its Contract for America promised lower taxes and a less obtrusive government. They charged into Washington after the November elections thinking their revolution would have staying power. The Republicans had won 230 seats in the US House, the first time they would be in the majority since 1952. With the Alabama Senator Richard Shelby switching to the Republican Party the day after the election, the Republicans would now hold 53 Senate seats to the Democrats' 47. The White House would be theirs again soon. Or so they thought.
Two years later, Mr Clinton, who, like Mr Obama, promised change in Washington and was punished by voters in the midterm elections for not delivering, was easily re-elected as president after a string of legislative successes, including welfare reform. The Democrats gained back nine seats in the House.
Obama supporters are looking for that kind of history to repeat itself. But can it? Two years of divided US government loom, with Mr Obama's policies, both on the domestic and foreign-policy fronts, now facing a strengthened opposition. Can the United States' first African-American president, like Mr Clinton, add the moniker Comeback Kid to his resume?
This year in the United States, with a 9.6-per-cent unemployment rate and tens of thousands of US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, is certainly not 1994 when the economy was booming and the US role in the world was not so bruised.
"Public frustration today is very different from the kind the country experienced in 1994," said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University in Virginia.
"Today, a poor economy and high unemployment are driving the public's frustrations. Healthcare reform had a role in mobilising the conservative movement against the Democrats, but mostly it was swing voters who expressed generalised frustrations with the state of the economy and punished the incumbents."
He said Republicans wrongly "believed that they won a mandate" (in 1994).
"They proceeded to behave as though the country had just given a positive affirmation to their policies, when the election was more a reaction against Clinton. This year the Republicans seem a lot more cautious about the meaning of their victory. It appears that this time many of them understand that the outcome was an expression of public frustration with the current direction of the country, but not a mandate for a Republican agenda."
Of those midterm losses in 1994, the author Taylor Branch in his book The Clinton Tapes writes that Mr Clinton "said several times that he had pushed change too rapidly for voters to digest", that there "had been too many little scandals" and that "health care had failed".
Mr Obama's administration has been virtually scandal-free and healthcare reform passed, much to the dismay of many conservative Americans, especially the Tea Party backers, who see it as Big Brother encroaching more and more into their lives.
Like Mr Clinton in 1994, Mr Obama took much of the blame for the congressional defeats, saying on Wednesday that he got the voters' message and that Americans are "deeply frustrated" about the state of the economy.
Despite that acknowledgment, Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said he thinks "it will be more difficult" for Mr Obama to have Clinton-like success over the next two years.
"The parties are even more polarised, so Republicans are in no mood to reach agreement," he said. "They also remember what Clinton did, so [they] will have an incentive to avoid giving him that space. At the same time if Obama moved too far to the centre, he would really anger liberals and possibly set up a primary challenge."
What Mr Clinton did after the 1994 midterm losses was "capture the middle as the GOP in the mid-1990s turned hard right," Mr Rozell said. "Like Clinton back then, Obama's image at the midterm stage has moved left, and whether he can reposition himself in the middle will depend on how the Republicans use their majority status in the House.
"Assuming that the GOP leaders avoid Gingrich-style megalomania, Obama will have a tough time pulling off a Clinton-like feat."
Both Mr Rozell and Mr Zelizer point out that "economic recovery is now front and centre" in the White House and on Capitol Hill.
"Foreign policy would feel the squeeze regardless," Mr Zelizer said. "But certainly Obama will not want to take initiatives that open him up to any kind of attack from Capitol Hill. He'll hope that this is one area he can at least calm Republican attacks. I don't think the GOP will have to bottle up his agenda as a result, since he'll approach it from a more defensive position."
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, points out that "Obama is still commander-in-chief, his appointees are in charge at defence, state, treasury, and the intelligence agencies. Given that the Senate remains in Democratic hands, Congress cannot force President Obama to do anything he really doesn't want to do, although they may refuse to fund initiatives that the White House might favour … On the vast majority of foreign policy issues, in short, the initiative will remain in the White House. So if you're thinking the election makes war with Iran more likely, or anything crazy like that, think again. We might do something that stupid, but if so it will be Obama's mistake, not [incoming Speaker of the House] John Boehner's."
Mr Zelizer adds that he thinks the election results and the need to focus on the economy mean that Mr Obama's outreach to the Muslim world "will be on the back burner, other than public diplomacy efforts through the State Department that are not highly visible".
History, of course, has often repeated itself in US politics, and Mr Clinton and Mr Obama are not the only presidents whose party suffered significant midterm loses.
Warren Harding's Republicans lost 77 seats in the House in 1922, Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats, 72 in 1938 and Watergate-plagued Gerald Ford, who had pardoned Richard Nixon, saw the Republicans lose 48 seats in 1974.
Roosevelt was reelected to an unprecedented third term in 1940. Tuesday's results could simply prove to be a detour to navigate, not a roadblock for the Obama presidency and his hopes of serving a second term.
"Clinton certainly offered one path to re-election following a disappointing first midterm election. Of course, he was helped by Republicans who overreached, such as when they went ahead with a shutdown of the federal government in late 1995," said Isaac Wood, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"If Republicans hand Obama the same gift, or if the economy rebounds, Obama has a good chance at re-election. On the other hand, if the economy stays sour, he will need to shift the blame to Republicans, most likely by portraying them as obstructionist and overly partisan. He was unable to make the GOP the bogeyman in 2010, but now that they control the House, they will receive more attention."
Published: November 6, 2010 04:00 AM