In January 2009, President Barack Obama took office with sky-high approval ratings. The new President had massive support in Congress, with 255 Democrats to 178 Republicans in the House and 60 Democratic Senators to just 40 Republicans.
But today, Mr Obama’s ratings stand at 46 per cent approve, 48 per cent disapprove in the Gallup Poll. It appears highly likely that tomorrow the Grand Old Party will win control of the House and come close to or achieve a narrow majority in the Senate.
How did this all happen so quickly? Because Mr Obama ran as a centrist but governed from the left of America’s political spectrum. He also overpromised and underdelivered, especially on the economy. Candidate Obama posed as a fiscal conservative and deficit hawk, saying he would “scrub the budget line by line” as he criticised the deficits under George W. Bush. As President, he rang up more in deficits in his first 20 months than Mr Bush did in eight years.
His healthcare reform bill was unpopular when it passed. It now has the unfortunate distinction of being the only major piece of American social legislation that became less popular after its passage, in part because it ran counter to Mr Obama’s campaign ad that called “government- run healthcare . . . extreme.”
These policies have energised previously uninvolved voters. Many found a way into politics through the Tea Party movement. Incredibly decentralised, this grassroots effort sprang into existence as a reaction to Mr Obama’s spending, car company bailouts, and efforts to take tax dollars from prudent mortgage holders to spend on those who couldn’t keep up their mortgage payments.
Concerns about Mr Obama’s policies have also driven independents and college-educated voters, two groups vital to his 2008 election, out of the Democratic camp and solidly into the GOP column for the first time since 2004. The President has also seen African-Americans losing enthusiasm and Latino and young voters drift into opposition or apathy.
Democrat candidates who enthusiastically embraced the Obama agenda are finding it politically lethal: not a single vulnerable Democrat touts their vote for the stimulus and only a handful herald the healthcare bill.
Mr Obama’s tone has also hurt Democrats. He behaved more presidentially in the 2008 campaign than he has in the White House. In the past few weeks, he has told Democratic rallies that Republicans are welcome to ride along, but must “sit in the back”. More than most politicians, Mr Obama should be sensitive to metaphors involving people riding in the back of moving vehicles.
Then he told a Latino audience that now is the time “to punish our enemies . . . and reward our friends”. This is the language of a Chicago ward boss, not the United States president.
But what happens after Tuesday’s rejection of the President and his party? There things become murky. Republican gains will end Mr Obama’s liberal ambitions. Not only will they be blocked in the House, but 24 Democratic senators — many from “red” states — face election in 2012, nearly three times the number of Republicans. These Democrats will be eager to put distance between themselves and the Obama agenda.
Republicans will be able to stop Obama’s spending binge and even roll it back somewhat. The Bush-era tax cuts are likely to be extended for at least a year or two. And Mr Obama will see the GOP make every effort to repeal, trim, defund, modify and reform his healthcare bill. His veto pen could become well used.
In recent interviewsMr Obama has dropped hints about his reaction to his party’s looming apocalypse. First, he blames it on poor communications. But Mr Obama possesses America’s biggest bully pulpit — the more he talks about his proposals, the more poorly received they are. Then Obama and his advisers blame the absence of bipartisanship entirely on the GOP. But the President has not attempted to include any of their suggestions in his proposals and has gone months without consulting with them. The President has been content to propose congressional legislation that only Democrats could vote for. Now many of them will pay for their support with their political careers.
It is unlikely (but not impossible) that Mr Obama will move to the centre and co-opt Republicans through compromise and negotiation. It is more likely that he will dig in, pursue the 30 per cent of his agenda he thinks is yet to be enacted and hope that controversy over those policies strengthens his left, re-energises African-American voters and wins him re-election in 2012.
A clue may be found in the passenger manifest for Mr Obama’s lengthy foreign trip that begins on Thursday. Sealed in the cabin of Air Force One, Mr Obama and his travelling party will likely discuss strategies for dealing with resurgent Republicans. If a cadre of true believers surrounds him on this trip, then the President is likely to return unhumbled by defeat but instead thinking that two years of political warfare will win him a second term.
Barack Obama has tumbled from the heights in just a few months. Tomorrow’s election will be a rejection of virtually every important Obama domestic initiative, especially his stewardship of the economy. Rarely has a president brought his party so low so quickly. And he doesn’t seem to understand why.
This article originally appeared on www.thetimes.co.uk on Monday, November 1, 2010.