As Democrats lose numerous seats in this year’s midterm elections, Eoghan Dockrell asks why President Obama’s halo has diminished
Oprah christened him ‘the one’, his Republican opponent John McCain jokingly referred to him as a ‘messiah’ and most media outlets praised his intellectual curiosity and grasp of detailed policy. Furthermore, all – except the vehemently right-wing US network Fox News – were in awe of his masterful oratory, packed with uplifting messages of hope, unity and change. Barack Obama became a symbol of hope for a country in desperate need of political revitalisation.
The American public wanted change, desperately. During the campaign, an overwhelming majority of Americans believed that their country was going in the wrong direction. He was their answer, the pill they needed to recover from the painful eight-year hangover that was the Bush administration.
The 2008 election was a historic campaign, where a ‘transformative’ figure was elected president and hailed as the ultimate outsider; he was meant to end partisan gridlock while delivering on his platform of change and then, inevitably, march to victory in 2012.
The political landscape of November 2010 is radically different. Democrats have just lost over 60 seats in the House of Representatives in this year’s midterm elections. Republicans, meanwhile, made massive gains and are now comfortably in the majority.
Few foresaw such losses, not least Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, who enthusiastically endorsed Obama. Considering that so many Democrats cruised to victory in 2008 on the back of Obama’s coattails, it would have been fair to think that her position as speaker was secure for 2010. Yet Pelosi is now out of her job, along with 60 of her colleagues. Moreover, because of the president’s unpopularity, many congressional Democrats refused to campaign with him.
When Obama won the presidential election in 2008, it had been the biggest victory for a Democratic nominee in 40 years. The midterm elections of 2010, on the other hand, saw the Democrats suffer their biggest defeat in over 40 years.
What message can Obama take from this dramatic swing in support? The answer depends on what side of the political aisle you sit on. Liberals say Obama hasn’t done enough, hasn’t closed Gitmo, hasn’t brought the troops home, hasn’t been bold enough with healthcare reform and hasn’t been tough enough on Wall Street.
Conservatives say Obama is turning America into a socialist state by destroying their most sacred of religions: capitalism. The Republicans, as the ‘Party of No’, have responded by shouting ‘no’ to everything: no to ‘Obamacare’, no to the bank bailout. In short, they’ve roared ‘no’ to Obama’s ‘evil Marxist agenda’. You name it; they’ve opposed it, in true obstructionist, stop-civil-rights fashion.
But Obama shouldn’t be too worried about these two groups. The liberals should come back onside for 2012. It would take Obama kicking off a nuclear war for them to switch sides, in which case, the election would be a moot point.
As for Conservatives and Republicans in general, he never had a hope of winning them over and shouldn’t waste any energy trying. The significant number of Republicans who did vote for Obama in 2008 will move back to the GOP column. Just like the disillusioned Democrats who swore they never voted for Nixon, they’ll too deny they ever pulled the lever for Obama.
Two important demographics that Obama should worry about are independent and young voters. In this election, many independents that voted Democrat in 2008 switched allegiance and backed Republicans. Many Democrats, including Obama in a post-mortem style press conference, cited the underperforming economy as the main reason for why so many opted to vote Republican.
But one movement that Democrats have underestimated was the formidable force of the Tea Party. The Tea Party is a movement made up mostly of Conservatives and independents who believe in a simple slash-and-burn approach to government: slash taxes and cut spending. The Republican leadership ought to be thankful to the Tea Party for energising their base and endorsing many of their candidates.
It is a dark time for Democrats and for Obama, but there is some light to be seen. With the Republicans taking control of Congress, they too will now have a responsibility to govern and not to merely say no.
Obama will have to make concessions and drop some of his more liberal initiatives. Instead, he should be seen to give extra attention to issues with greater voter appeal, chiefly the economy. This compromising image should help burnish his bipartisan credentials. He should also take solace in knowing that both Clinton and Reagan went on to win re-election after losing badly in their first midterms.
But if he is to follow in the two former presidents’ footsteps, he’ll need the support of not only his base, but also of young people, the 18-25 year olds who voted for him in unprecedented numbers back in 2008. They stayed at home during this midterm election. The question is whether their enthusiasm for him has since dissipated irrevocably into apathy? Was the spike in turnout among college students just that – a spike?
It is clear that Obama has an uphill battle ahead of him. His greatest challenge will be contending with a resurgent Republican party who are hell bent on making him a one-term president.