The New York Times Magazine
If we learned anything about Barack Obama during the now-distant campaign of 2008, it was that he was a man who valued stoicism and self-possession in himself and others. And so it was significant, in an understated way, to hear Obama’s press secretary describe him, on the day of the election in Massachusetts to fill Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat, as “surprised and frustrated” by the collapse of the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, and then to hear Obama’s closest aides heaping scorn on her campaign. You could see how this latest defeat might have registered on Obama like a horse hoof to the abdomen, shaking him from his prized equanimity and plunging his White House into a spate of uncharacteristic self-doubt. On a personal level, Obama had to feel that he had somehow failed one of his mentors, allowing not only Kennedy’s seat to slip away but quite possibly his dream of national health care too. Politically, the Massachusetts election seems likely to presage worse days ahead, suggesting, as an unending parade of commentators have now pointed out, that Obama and his governing party could face a calamitous November.
Obama should take heart, however, in the possibility that the pundits have this one only half-right. It’s probably true that if the midterm elections were held this week, Democrats would take enough casualties to make the Capitol look like the Alamo. But even a crushing election season wouldn’t necessarily marginalize Obama halfway through his term. For one thing, with an approval rating that runs 20 points or more above Congressional leaders, Obama is his own distinct brand; just because voters may be inclined to repudiate Congressional Democrats doesn’t necessarily mean they are primed to reject his presidency. What’s more, watching his party take a pounding is not the worst thing that could befall Obama politically. In fact, you could argue that rather than shudder at the thought of a more balanced Congress, Obama and his aides should embrace it.
Sure, all things being equal, a president would rather have his allies firmly in control than not. But recent presidents have had more success when forced to work with slim majorities in Congress, or even none at all. Ronald Reagan teamed with influential Democratic senators and a Democrat-controlled House to overhaul the tax code. Richard Nixon and a Democratic Congress enacted historic protections for the environment. Lyndon Johnson may have enjoyed sizable majorities in the sense of party affiliation but not in terms of ideology: a large contingent in his own party opposed civil rights and new social programs. He succeeded only by building a coalition that enlisted a lot of Northern moderate Republicans.
By contrast, Jimmy Carter, during his lone term, and George W. Bush, after his re-election in 2004 but before the Democratic takeover of 2006, saw signature proposals crushed by their own parties’ formidable majorities. Bill Clinton was headed pretty much in the same direction before voters showed his fellow Democrats the door in 1994 — a development that, in retrospect, revived his presidency. In the ensuing years, Clinton brokered deals to remake welfare and balance the budget, goals to which he had long been committed but that stood little chance while his own party was in charge. Americans like their presidents most when they seem like grown-ups, the kind of people who can forge consensus from cacophony. We tend to get behind an executive who acts as a bulwark against ideological extremism or who has to persuade some opponents to help enact an agenda rather than one who seems, fairly or not, to be trying to ram it through.
This is, of course, exactly the kind of statesmanlike president Obama envisioned becoming. As a candidate he indicted the unshakable orthodoxies of both parties and the ossified culture of Washington. But the breadth of the majorities Obama inherited has in some ways made it harder, rather than easier, for him to impose his vision on the capital. For one thing, the expectations for his presidency have been unreasonably high from the moment he took office, meaning that the mundane realities of governance could only disappoint an anxious country. When Al Franken became the 60th Democratic vote, for instance, pundits declared that Obama now had the power to pass any economic or health care plan he wanted — despite the fact that holding 60 senators together on any one vote is like trying to organize the Gosselin family photo. Instead, Obama spent most of his first year trying to mollify the various ideological constituencies in his own party and to referee squabbles between leadership in the two chambers, while his pledge to reform “business as usual” went largely unfulfilled.
Sullen Republicans, meanwhile, answering to a narrower slice of the electorate, have seen little reason to do anything other than reflexively attack the Democratic agenda at every turn. Liberal skeptics might argue that Republicans would shun Obama no matter how many seats they controlled, but the laws of political self-interest suggest otherwise; the more districts and states you represent, the more varied your constituencies and the more self-interest compels you to compromise. (The newly elected Scott Brown, for example, may sound like Rush Limbaugh now, but when the furor of the moment subsides and the polls on issues start rolling in from Massachusetts, he may find the Tea Party thing harder to sustain.) A dialogue between Obama and a more powerful Republican minority on health care, for instance, might yield a bill that included deeper cost cuts and some kind of meaningful malpractice reform. And if a bill like that received more support from independent voters, moderate Republicans would be reluctant to oppose it.
Chastened by the defeat in Massachusetts, Obama now has the better part of a year to stabilize his party’s standing. Perhaps that means he will, at long last, take his case directly to the voters rather than focusing all his energy on Capitol Hill, obsessing over every parliamentary maneuver and wavering member of Congress. The other bit of good news for the president, though, is that should the voters reject his argument and shear his Democratic majorities in November, at least he’ll be handed a valuable strategic foil in 2012. After all, running against the small-minded obstructionist forces in Congress has proved to be the most effective re-election pitch for a long line of beleaguered presidents, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. Losing his advantage in Congress might yet reveal to the president new paths toward the kind of less ideological, more enlightened governance he was supposed to represent. And if not, at least he’ll have someone to blame.
Matt Bai writes about national politics for the magazine.