It has been clear for many months, ever since the nascent economic recovery that appeared to be picking up steam in late 2009, early 2010 hit a wall following the Greek financial crisis, that Democrats were certain to sustain major losses in the midterm elections. All one needed to know was that the Democrats were in power, they had a large number of seats in the House and Senate at risk following their victories in 2006 and 2008, the midterm electorate was almost certain to contain a smaller percentage of their strongest supporters (young voters and minorities) than in 2008, and the economy, whether measured by unemployment, real disposable income per capita, or subjective assessments of the present and future state of the economy, was in dreadful shape.
The election results were fully consistent with those expectations. The new Republican majority was a predictable and understandable consequence of those factors. That Republicans appear likely to fall short in the Senate is largely a consequence of the large Democratic majority in the 111th Congress and the relatively small number of seats up, many of which were in blue and purple, not red, states.
The natural temptation of politicians and pundits is to see striking results such as these as evidence of fateful errors on the part of the president (misguided priorities, ideological overreach, failures of communication, flaws in presidential personality or style) and harbingers of electoral battles to come. Neither is warranted by historical experience. A very bad economy and a major change in the composition of the electorate from the presidential to midterm election fully account for the outcome. President Obama’s success in avoiding a challenge to his renomination and the pace and strength of the economic recovery will determine his reelection prospects in 2012. But the midterm setback for him and the Democrats will have serious consequences for the capacity of the country to address its most serious challenges. The partisan opposition that confronted the Obama administration during its first two years will only intensify after this election.