Originally Published 2010-10-22 00:00:00 Published on Oct 22, 2010
A few days before President Obama's Indian visit, the US will witness midterm elections. If the opinion polls are anything to go by, the Democratic Party appears to be in trouble. However, Obama can utilize the polls to retool his strategy and win back the voters as Bill Clinton did in 1994.
President Obama and the Midterm Elections
Barely a few days before the Indian visit of President Obama, the United States will witness the midterm elections. On 2nd November, the US House of Representatives, 36 Senate seats and 39 governor seats face elections and if the opinion polls are anything to go by, the Democratic Party appears to be in trouble.

The Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi are in real danger of losing control of the House barring a last minute miracle. The latest opinion polls by Reuters indicate that the Republicans have a four-point edge in the House elections and they may win about 227 seats in the 435 member house.1  Nearly 70 Congressional seats are considered to be competitive and of these, a vast majority are held by the Democrats.

The Senate races look more promising to the Democrats as they are likely to retain their control albeit with a reduced margin. Presently, the Democrats have a 59-41 edge in the Senate. Democrat-held seats in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Washington, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois, West Virginia, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania are in play and the Republicans are sure to pick up a few among these. Senate majority leader Harry Reid is in a tight race with the Tea Party endorsed candidate Sharron Angle. While the Tea Party movement has energised the Republican base to a large extent, it has also diminished the possibility of a Republican takeover of the Senate by ensuring Republican tickets for hard-line candidates like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.

The governor races appear to be even more disheartening for the democrats. All the opinion polls indicate a clear edge for the Republican Party in the governor elections. Democrats at present hold 26 Governor seats and the Republicans 24. Presently, the Republicans have an edge in Democrat-held states of Pennsylvania, Iowa, Michigan, Kansas, Wyoming, Tennessee and Oklahoma. They are also running closely in Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Maine. With the Republicans gaining a considerable edge in the gubernatorial elections, they will have a major say in the electoral redistricting process which will start next year. It can also delay the implementation of the health care reforms in Republican-ruled states.

President Obama and the Democratic Party are handicapped by the fact that the Presidential approval ratings have fallen to 44 percent and in the generic Congressional ballot, the Republican Party leads by about 7 percent points. Close to 63 percent of the American voters feel that the country is on the wrong track.

The massive flight of independent voters away from the Democrats who overwhelmingly supported President Obama in the 2008 elections has been a major cause of concern. Unfortunately for the President, he inherited two wars and an economic recession. And his policies on a range of issues like climate change, energy, financial stimulus, health care, gay-rights and immigration reforms are under attack from supporters on the left and detractors on the right. The President also had to deal with the BP oil spill, which was touted as ‘Obama’s Katrina’ and caused further dent in his popularity.

The Afghan situation remains in flux and now it is known as Obama’s war. In the international arena, he has to cope with a rising China and is yet to score a major foreign policy success. The Palestinian peace process collapsed yet again and Iran remains as intransigent as ever.

After two years of Democratic rule (White House, Senate and the House), the American voters are disgruntled with the situation. The economic recovery has been painfully slow, unemployment stays at around 10 percent, and the federal government reported a $1.29 trillion deficit in fiscal year 2010. The latest figures indicate that almost 44 million Americans are living in poverty. Added to this is the threat of foreclosures. With around four million loans nearing foreclosure, the New York Times reported that an estimated “3.5 million homes will be lost by the end of 2012, on top of 6.2 million already lost.” 3

It is not that the President does not have any legislative achievements to his credit. In fact, he was successful in getting his pet project -- the health care reform -- passed. The President also led in enacting the auto-company rescue and a landmark law in regulating the Wall Street. But perhaps, he got his priorities mixed up and was not really successful in marketing his achievements. While the health care law was a remarkable and righteous attempt at providing universal access, its opponents have painted it as a move to bring in socialism through backdoor and majority of Americans are in favour of repealing the law. A Rasmussen poll held on October 16-17 says that 55% of likely U.S. voters favour repeal of the health care law. 4

Similarly, the President’s public comments on the Ground Zero Islamic Centre/Mosque were not helpful from an electoral point of view. Obama’s argument in support of the project was flawless from a constitutional and legal standpoint, but his position was not in consonance with the one held by nearly three quarters of his countrymen. His uncharacteristically inelegant flip-flop on the very next day made sure the mileage he gained among the liberal elites was also squandered. Already there is no dearth of groups which claim that Obama is a closet-Muslim, forcing the White House to come out with a formal statement that the “President is obviously a Christian and communicates with his religious advisor every single day”. Yet, nearly one in five Americans thinks that Obama is Muslim.5  His detractors have also been somewhat successful in painting him as scholar with intellectual arrogance, staying aloof from mainstream America.

The speculation about Obama ending up as a one term President has been steadily on the rise. In fact, the President, while contemplating the political losses of the health care reform, himself told the ABC News in January 2010 “I’d rather be a really good one-term President than a mediocre two-term President.” 6  He had echoed almost similar sentiments in the latest interview he gave to the New York Times: “There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular.” 7

Amidst all these, Obama remains one of the most popular leaders in the United States and in the Democratic Party (with the surprising exception of former President Bill Clinton). He is miles ahead in popularity compared to the Democratic Congressional leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority leader Harry Reid. The midterm polls may be an opportunity for the President to retool his strategy and win back the American voters. Bill Clinton performed this role exceptionally well in 1994 after his party was routed in the midterms.

While the Republicans hold the edge, a fortnight is quite a long time in politics. In fact, Scott Brown, the Republican Senator from Massachusetts, defied all odds, erased a double-digit deficit in the last two weeks of campaign and won the seat which fell vacant after the death of Edward Kennedy. The Democrats too can hope to emulate this feat and defy predictions by campaigning hard and playing to their strengths.

(Ajish P Joy is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)
< class="heading10verdana"> 1 http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE69451X20101014
2 http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/direction_of_country-902.html
3 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/15/opinion/15fri1.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
4 http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/current_events/healthcare/health_care_law
5 http://www.haaretz.com/news/international/white-house-obama-obviously-christian-prays-every-day-1.309089
6 http://abcnews.go.com/WN/Politics/president-obama-good-term-president/story?id=9657337
7 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/magazine/17obama-t.html

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