All signs point to major losses for the Democratic party in the U.S. midterm elections this November. The recovery is slowing, while recent job figures have all but ended hopes that unemployment will fall fast enough to change voter’s minds. But for President Barack Obama it really does not matter whether his party loses its congressional majority, or merely a large number of seats. In either case, the days of single-party government in Washington will be over.
To see why a reverse looms, look at the trends that worry Democrats. Their edge in party identification has narrowed sharply. To be sure, Republicans keep picking candidates with views outside the mainstream, most recently in Colorado last week. But voters’ views of congressional candidates nonetheless display a pattern consistent with big Republican gains.
Worse, self-proclaimed independents are also increasingly conservative. And survey after survey shows that conservatives are far more enthusiastic about going to the polls. Even more than spilled oil in Louisiana marshland, it is the anaemic economy that sours the public mood. But the trends above suggest something more fundamental. For the steps Mr. Obama took – was forced to take, his supporters say – to stem the financial crisis have triggered American qualms about the reach of state power.
For most of the previous decade, when conservatives dominated U.S. politics, a steady majority believed that “government should do more to solve problems”. About a year ago that changed; a majority now thinks “government is doing too many things”. The shift is especially sharp among independents.
Despite all these indicators, whether Democrats actually lose matters less than commentators assume. Even if they cling on, Mr. Obama will not be able to muster the 60 votes in the Senate needed to surmount Republican procedural obstacles. So whatever happens, he will be forced to negotiate with an emboldened Republican opposition on nearly equal terms.
This means a change of substance as well as tone. The president will have to give the federal budget deficit and national debt a far more central place in his policy agenda. Here the obstacles to agreementare formidable, although the findings of his bipartisan fiscal commission, due out in December, may help him shift to a more fiscally conservative position. It helps that the commission’s co-chairs, Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, are determined to break the current gridlock, in which conservatives refuse to consider raising taxes while the left stoutly resists cuts in social programmes.
The logic of the coming new political balance will impose other requirements. If Mr. Obama hopes to achieve his goal of doubling U.S. exports, he will have to push for the ratification of pending trade treaties with Colombia and South Korea, which will split the Democrats and force him to rely on Republican support. If he wants to fire up the idling US job machine, he will also have to do more to repair his administrations damaged relationship with corporate America.
In social policy, only new programmes with strong bipartisan support (if there are any) will stand a chance. A package of incentives for energy development that includes new and alternative fuels may be possible, but a cap and trade scheme will now be on hold until after 2012. And progress on immigration reform – a vital issue for America’s burgeoning Latinos – will mean accepting the tough enforcement measures on which conservatives insist.
The outlook for defence and foreign policy is much the same. If Mr. Obama can’t ratify the New Start treaty updating limits on US and Russian nuclear stockpiles before the new Congress is seated, he will have to compromise with anti-arms control conservatives on their favourite issue: missile defence. And if he wishes to persevere in Afghanistan (a matter of conjecture, admittedly), he will rely on Republican support to counter rising opposition within his own party.
As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich discovered in 1995, the logic of negotiation works both ways; a divided government can’t be run from Capitol Hill any more than from the White House. Nonetheless, whatever happens in November, Mr. Obama will have to become less like the liberal antithesis to Ronald Reagan, a “transformative” president whom he has professed to admire, and more like the heir to Bill Clinton, whose agenda he has regarded as excessively compromised and incremental.
To carry off this shift, he may have to replace the senior members of his economic and political teams who are most closely identified with the policies of the first two years. For example, he may want to grant David Axelrod, a thoroughly decent man and the keeper of the Obama seal, his stated wish to return to Chicago and replace him with someone better suited to the post-election circumstances.
If he wants to succeed in the next two years of his presidency, and stand for re-election from a position of strength, he will have to do what Clinton did after the debacle of 1994 – namely, defend what he cannot surrender, while negotiating seriously with the opposition in other areas. No later than his 2011 State of the Union address, we will find out whether Mr. Obama possesses the one trait that every successful statesman needs: the ability to adjust to changing circumstances without selling his soul.