As defeat looms, the nature of Obama’s political game will have to change

It won't be easy, and it will require a political backbone that, thus far, Obama hasn't proven he possesses. However, there remains the chance that, whether he's earned it or not, come 2012, enough of the electorate will still trust the embattled incumbent when he declares that his hitherto uninspiring brand of 'Change' is something they can continue to believe in.

President Obama said the United States would “spare no effort” and “will not waver in our fight to defeat Al-Qaeda” as he addressed the media following yesterday’s worldwide terror alert encompassing the US, Britain and the Middle East; here, Left Foot Forward’s Matt Owen, a graduate of the University of East Anglia’s American Studies department, looks ahead to the President’s big electoral test next week, with polls predicting defeat for the Democrats in Tuesday’s midterms

“When we promised during the campaign ‘Change You Can Believe In’, it wasn’t ‘Change You Can Believe In’ in eighteenth months, it was ‘Change You Can Believe In’ that we’re going to have to work for… It’s not going to happen overnight.” – Barack Obama’s plea for patience on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show this week summed up the mood in the Democrat camp.

With a midterm drubbing on the horizon, the President was defiant in defending his two-year record, but he exuded the unmistakable air of a politician in damage-control mode.

November 2nd is shaping up to be a tough day for the Democrats. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll produced the following conclusion:

“Critical parts of the coalition that delivered President Obama to the White House in 2008 and gave Democrats control of Congress in 2006 are switching their allegiance to the Republicans in the final phase of the midterm Congressional elections… Republicans have wiped out the advantage held by Democrats in recent election cycles among women, Roman Catholics, less affluent Americans and independents.

In line with this, the usually highly-accurate FiveThirtyEight political calculus website forecasts that the Republicans will take the House of Representatives 232-203, while the Democrats will narrowly retain the Senate with just 52 seats to 48. Obama’s ongoing calls for those voters who catapulted him to power in 2008 not to abandon him now are earnest enough, but really the President knows, like everyone else, that next Tuesday’s political die is more-or-less cast.

What really matters now is how his administration reacts to what is likely to be a day of heavy losses, and how it goes about trying to prevent Obama from becoming the “one-term wonder” that some of his detractors are already branding him as. Assuming, then, that Tuesday does pan out as forecasted, and the Democrats do lose control of the House and suffer near-parity in the Senate, what will it mean for the Obama administration?

Well, for one, they can console themselves with the fact that this is hardly the first time an incumbent has taken a beating at the midterms, and that such a beating does not inevitably lead to a failure to win a second term. Ronald Reagan came to power in similar circumstances to Obama in 1980 – in possession of a huge majority, a disaffected electorate, and a heavily ailing economy – and suffered major losses at the midterms, before winning re-election in the biggest landslide in American history in 1984.

Indeed, Allan Lichtman, presidential historian at American University, recently stated that the two Presidents are, in electoral terms “mirror images of each other”. Similarly, fellow Democrat President Bill Clinton managed to turn things around and win re-election in 1996 after his party was slaughtered in the midterms two years prior.

Past presidential comebacks such as these do offer the Democrats some reason for (cautious) optimism. But how will Obama have to change his current approach if he is to produce his own feat of electoral turnaround? To ask such a question is to move into the realm of pure speculation, but there are a number of commentators, such as the political thinkers over at Time magazine, who think that it is exactly the most recent of these past successes stories that offer Obama his best chance of a revival:

“The Clinton game plan circa 1994 shows how a young Democratic President, seen as overreaching and lurching leftward two years into his term, can move back to the political centre, reconnect with the opposition, reclaim his momentum and successfully maintain his agenda.”

Vague as this sounds, it is probably broadly correct in highlighting what Obama will have to do to revive his flagging presidency. ‘Moving back to the centre’ – that is, adopting an agenda that makes it harder for various foaming-at-the-mouth Fox News anchors to dub him a “socialist” – is the right move at a time when the prevailing opinion is that he has ‘lurched leftward’ up till now.

By pursuing more of a cross-party approach, Obama will be able to revive the mercurial art of political triangulation which served Clinton so well in the nineties, and which the current incumbent praised in his book The Audacity of Hope for “tapp[ing] into the pragmatic, non-ideological attitude of Americans”.

In essence, without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate or control of the House, Obama will probably have to become nothing short of a hard-nosed pragmatist who is unafraid to cross party lines if he wants to save his presidency. He will also, of course, have to hope and pray that the economy begins to revive itself, and that the recent slight improvements in unemployment rates are not simply a flash in the pan.

Make no mistake; Obama’s rock-bottom approval ratings and the approaching Republican gains represent a clear rejection of his political agenda. Even amongst many of his most ardent supporters, his presidency has been a great disappointment. There are painful echoes of Bill Hicks’ take on the US presidency in how utterly (as well as utterly unsurprisingly) Obama has pandered to the powerful vested interests whose donations put him in office two years ago.

However, it’s not all bad news for the Democrats. The weakness of the Republican 2012 presidential field; the fact that, as The New York Times identified last week, Obama may well benefit from having an enemy (in the form of a Republican House) to both do political battle with and heap blame on; the vote-splitting potential of the right-wing populist Tea Party movement… there are numerous reasons why the likely midterm drubbing might not be such a disaster for the Democrats. There is still a very long way to go until the presidential election of 2012.

It won’t be easy, and it will require a political backbone that, thus far, Obama hasn’t proven he possesses. However, there remains the chance that, whether he’s earned it or not, come 2012, enough of the electorate will still trust the embattled incumbent when he declares that his hitherto uninspiring brand of ‘Change’ is something they can continue to believe in.

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