It’s too much to say that we all should have seen last week’s Republican upset in Massachusetts coming. Not even the Republicans themselves thought they had a chance in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat until about 10 days out.
But we should have known, long before the polls showed a last-minute surge of support for Republican Scott Brown, that the race wasn’t going to be quite the Democratic cakewalk that we generally associate with elections in Massachusetts and other blue states. The reason has everything to do with what happened on Nov. 4, 2008.
That was the night when Barack Obama racked up 365 electoral votes, made once-unthinkable inroads into Republican redoubts like Indiana and North Carolina and racked up a higher share of the popular vote than any Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson.
But it was also the night that his Democratic Party, riding Obama’s coattails and a two-year wave of discontent with Republican rule, secured overwhelming majorities in both chambers of Congress. And it came less than two months after a Wall Street meltdown turned what was already a recession into something approaching a depression. This formula—new president plus massive Congressional majorities plus dreadful economy—is the perfect recipe for what the Massachusetts result signified: a brutal midterm election cycle for the White House.
No matter what the economic or political climate, midterm elections are almost always unpleasant for new presidents. Only twice in the modern era has the White House’s party not lost seats in one, and both examples are easily explained: In 1998, Bill Clinton’s Democrats picked up a few seats because of an impeachment backlash, and 2002 George W. Bush’s G.O.P. capitalized on lingering 9/11 trauma. The only variable has been degree.
It was easy to ignore all of this back in November ’08, on that magical night when hundreds of thousands exultant Obama supporters celebrated his historic triumph in Chicago’s Grant Park. Or in the early months of 2009, when the new president set to work with a vast majority of his countrymen and –women expressing affection for and faith in him. Back then, it was tempting to imagine that it might somehow stay that way for years to come—that Mr. Obama and the Democrats would sustain their sky-high popularity while the G.O.P. slipped further and further from relevance.
Tempting, perhaps. But totally and completely unrealistic.
The slide that has accompanied the end of Mr. Obama’s first year in office—and that led directly to his party’s loss in Massachusetts—was inevitable.
The reason is simple: Voters live in the present tense.Of course, this isn’t the media’s favored narrative—nor that of all Republicans and most Democrats. Instead, we hear that the president pushed too hard and too fast on health care, or too slowly and too incrementally. And that he lost the middle by pushing for a stimulus plan that was too bloated to accomplish any good, or one that was too small to produce real growth. And that he failed to deliver on his promise of post-partisanship and cooperation, or that he sold his progressive base out by pursuing too much compromise with moderates and Republicans. And on and on.
This is the season for theories on “Why Obama Is Failing,” and every media outlet, politician, interest group and pundit has an explanation—one perfectly tailored to whatever broader agenda the person or group in question is pushing. But reality is so much simpler: When economic anxiety is rampant and one party controls the government, that party will take a beating at the polls.
Just consider the case of the last president who dealt with double-digit unemployment. He came into office much the way Mr. Obama did—elected in a landslide and with stunning Congressional coattails. He promised transformational change and the country desperately wanted to believe in him. But the economy, bad to begin with, deteriorated even further in his first two years, and his party suffered a bloodletting in his first midterm election.
The press, the opposition and even members of his own party said the same things about him then that we’re starting to hear about Mr. Obama now—that he’s in over his head, that the country has turned on him, that he’s a sure one-termer. And then, two years after that midterm, Ronald Reagan won 49 states and was reelected to a second term.
This will be a very rough year for Mr. Obama and his party. Massachusetts is likely a small taste of what’s to come in November. Just try to keep the Reagan example in mind.