For reasons related to normal rhythms of American politics and to Barack Obama’s abnormal lurch to the left, his presidency probably has passed its apogee.
If Obama has a second term, it probably will be, as most are, more difficult than the first, during which his party’s brand has been badly damaged in just 17 months. The 22nd Amendment renders reelected presidents instant lame ducks. Public boredom is induced by the incontinent talkativeness of those who occupy the modern rhetorical presidency. And power seeps from reelected presidents as attention turns to selecting their successors.
The remainder of Obama’s first term will be complicated by this November’s elections. Turnout in this nonpresidential year will be significantly smaller than in 2008. The largest declines will be among young and minority voters who were energized by Obama being on the ballot. So this year’s turnout will be older, whiter—and more conservative.
Many conservatives were too dispirited to vote in 2008. Not now. Gallup reports a four-poll average of 59 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents saying that this year they are unusually enthusiastic about voting, the highest number Gallup has recorded for a midterm election since the earthquake year of 1994, when Republicans gained 54 House seats. In Gallup’s June poll, 53 percent of Republicans said they were unusually enthusiastic, 39 percent said they were less; 35 percent of Democrats said they were unusually enthusiastic, 56 percent said they were less. The Republicans’ net of plus 14 more enthusiastic compared with the Democrats’ negative 21 is the largest party advantage Gallup has ever recorded for a midterm election.
This 111th Congress may leave Washington in December after a post-election lame-duck session in which defeated legislators with nothing to lose might vote for measures the unpopularity of which is, to progressives, evidence of how progressive the measures are. How many dead legislators walking might there be in December? Political analyst Charles Cook notes that in July 1994, four months before the Republican House landslide, Congress’s job approval was 53 percent. In October 2006, percent of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing—and a month later Republicans lost control of both chambers. In recent polls, approval of Congress has ranged from 19 to 26 percent.
Americans usually exempt their particular representative from their normal disparagement of Congress. Today, however, with 62 percent saying the country is on the wrong track, the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows 57 percent want to elect a new representative, the highest total in 18 years. Peter Hart, a Democrat who helps conduct this poll, says voters “are just looking for change.” Change they can believe in?
A “wave” election is defined as one in which a party gains at least 20 House seats. The 2006 and 2008 elections were the first two consecutive waves since 1980–82. (There have not been three in a row since 1948, 1950, 1952.) Waves wash legislators into seats that, when normality is restored, are inhospitable to their occupants. Liberal waves give moderate Democrats tenuous holds on essentially Republican districts. Because most Democratic losses will be among the least liberal Democrats, next year Speaker Pelosi’s caucus will be even more at odds with an increasingly center-right country.
In May, Gallup found that 20 percent of registered voters identified themselves as liberals; 42 percent said they were conservatives. The 49 percent of Americans who say the Democratic Party is “too liberal” is just one point below the 50 percent who said that after administering to the party the 1994 shellacking. The 50 percent was the highest number recorded in the 18 years Gallup has asked the question.
The 2012 and 2014 election cycles will be even more hazardous for Democrats because of their party’s exposure in Senate races. This year, Republicans are expected to gain at least five seats, even though they and the Democrats are defending 18 seats. But because of the 2006 and 2008 waves, in 2012 Democrats will be defending 23 Senate seats, Republicans only 10, and in 2014, Democrats will be defending 20, Republicans 13. The Democrats’ exposure in these two cycles (43) will be almost twice the Republicans’ (23). If Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has even 44 in his caucus next year, as he probably will, he will almost always be able to muster 41 votes to block bills. Which is another reason Obama’s apogee is in his rearview mirror.
George Will is also the author of One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation and With a Happy Eye But … America and the World, 1997—2002.