Presidents have managed to be effective without controlling Congress. This seems to be beyond the skills of the current president. His excuse – that the Republican Party today is especially partisan – seems not to hold up. Hostility of Democrats to Ronald Reagan and Republicans to Bill Clinton were at least as great. This is a president who knows how position his opponents as evil, and to engage in total war, but not how to shift to governing and compromise. The result of this is that he has abandoned any hope of implementing his agenda for the moment. His hope for a legacy rest on Democrats retaking the House in 2014. And, of course, holding the Senate, itself a challenging target.
Since World War Two control of the House has shifted six times. On four occasions it switched at mid-term elections, but in every case this was against the president’s party, not in its favor. The two occasions on which control shifted at a presidential election – 1948 and 1952 – it shifted, unsurprisingly, in the direction of the party winning the presidency. In 1952 this was to the party of a new, incoming president. Only in 1948 did the party already controlling the White House gain control of the House. For that reason, Democrats’ hopes of winning the House in 2012 were not complete fantasy, though it did not come to pass. The Senate, incidentally, also shifted control, and in the same direction, on five of those six occasions and on two others. In 1980 the Senate shifted to the Republicans and in 1986 to the Democrats. On both occasions this was against the party of the incumbent president: 1980 was when Jimmy Carter was defeated for re-election and 1986 was a mid-term reaction against Ronald Reagan.
So, on no occasion in recent history has either house shifted to the president’s party at a mid-term election, and it is more than sixty years since this has happened even in a presidential year.
Mid-term elections are traditionally difficult for the president’s party. There is a lower turnout, and it is harder to motivate disappointed supporters than angry opponents. Mid-term elections also tend to be more complicated. Instead of running down-ticket of the same presidential candidate, congressional candidates are, mostly, running down-ticket of a variety of gubernatorial candidates. The issues will therefore be different even in otherwise similar states. That said, in 2006 and 2010 the mid-term elections were very much focused on national issues, with the party out of the White House making major gains, albeit on the latter occasions gains which were limited in the case of the Senate but significant in House and state level elections.
The whole House, of course, is up for election, and it is very early to predict the mood of the country a year and a half from now. To win, Democrats merely need to regain districts they held as recently as three years ago. But for the president to rest all his hopes of a legacy on the precarious objective of winning the House seems perilous. In 1995 Bill Clinton rapidly learned that he could achieve things by finding common ground with Republicans – welfare reform for example. Do we have to wait until 2015 before Barack Obama sets realistic objectives, such as the Bowles-Simpson proposals, which he claims to support but continues to ignore.
Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com