Last November, Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives, the lower house of the U.S. Congress. On January 3, 242 Republican representatives (up from 178) and 193 Democrats (down from 255) will take their seats in the first session of the 112th Congress.
Although Barack Obama’s party retained a slim majority in the Senate (53 members against 47), this won’t give him a significant advantage, as 60 votes are needed to break a filibuster and bring legislation to the floor, and a two-thirds majority is needed to ratify international treaties. With his congressional scaffolding lost, Obama may find himself on shaky ground as he runs for reelection 2012.
Heeding the will of the voter
This does not mean, however, that the second half of Obama’s term is lost, or that he stands no chance of winning reelection in November 2012. The Republican wave in the 2010 elections are unlikely to move the United States very far rightward, as Americans are as wary of radical right-wing agenda of the Tea Party movement as they are of Obama’s “socialism.”
Obama will have to correct course in light of the message voters sent in the 2010 elections. Congress, after all, is the best gauge of voter sentiment.
The next election is approaching faster than you might think. The political calendar moves faster than the standard calendar. Politically speaking, Obama is already in the pre-election spring and he needs to prepare the ground and sow the seeds to harvest enough votes by Election Day in fall 2012. He has strengthened his position enough to dissuade any potential Democrat rivals from forcing Obama into a primary challenge in 2012. He neutralized Hillary Clinton way back in 2008 by appointing her secretary of state. If any new candidates emerge to take a swipe at Obama, they are unlikely to be heavyweights.
There is no official start date for the campaign season in the United States, but most candidates begin around a year and half before that all-important first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Some begin campaigning earlier if they have to. Obama, for his part, is already in campaign mode. All of his policies and actions are now focused on winning over voters rather than pursuing the agenda the Obama administration initially set upon taking office.
Obama needs to “reset” his domestic agenda, as the public is not entirely behind him. But he was not dealt a fatal blow in November. Most presidents lose congressional allies in mid-term elections in the United States. This is a natural reaction of U.S. voters who seek to maintain the checks and balances in their government.
The founding fathers of American democracy strove to create a system that balances the executive and legislative branches during crises. And the system really works, with midterm defeats drawing presidents who stray too far right or left back to the political center.
America the ungrateful
The U-turn in voter sentiment – from enthusiasm and admiration for Obama in 2008 to a chill in 2010 – is proof that this president’s progressive policies scare the public. America may be a technologically advanced nation, but politically America is a backward nation.
Obama has already made sweeping changes, achieving more in his first two years than any president in the past 100 years: landmark healthcare reform, tighter regulation of Wall Street, nearly $1 billion in economic stimulus and bank rescues. Apparently, these “socialist” policies do not fit America’s perception of itself as a uniquely democratic and capitalist nation.
Now Obama must rediscover the center to win back moderates and independents before the next election. This group of voters holds the keys to the White House. They are not interested in political ideology. They care about jobs, income, social benefits, affordable loans, lower taxes, and reducing the deficit.
The midterm elections were largely seen as a referendum on Obama’s first two years in office. But many voted for Republicans out of disappointment in Obama, not out of love for conservative values. Americans have always been impatient when it comes to the performance of presidents, especially when the economy is in a slump. But the fact is that Obama’s economic policies were not designed to yield significant results before the end of 2011, a full year from now.
Fewer friends on Capitol Hill
What U.S. president wouldn’t want to wake up on Election Day to find a Congress dominated by loyal allies? But this hardly ever happens.
In the past sixty years, the presidency and Congresses were more often than not held by opposing parties. Divided government is the rule, not the exception in America. The president’s party has controlled Congress only ten times since 1945, or 20 out of the past 65 years. Republicans held the White House from 1981 to 1991, while Congress was controlled by Democrats. In 1993, the Democratic president lost a huge Democratic majority in the House. From 2003 to 2007, George W. Bush enjoyed a Republican Congress, before the Democrats recaptured both houses halfway through his second term.
In politics, unlike in life, amputated limbs can grow back, and faster than you might think. The U.S. economy will pick up by 2012, and this will greatly improve Obama’s chances of reelection. Also, it is common knowledge that the candidate closest to the political center usually wins. Obama’s chances are still good – all the more so since there are no Republican challengers of his caliber.
The only regret is that Obama is unlikely to make any significant foreign policy achievements, especially in relations with Russia. Republicans will now twist Obama’s arms on Russia to extract concessions on domestic priorities.
Russia’s planned accession to the WTO will be first up on the chopping block. In order for Russia to become a full-fledged member, the United States must abolish the discriminatory 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment rather than grant Russia a waiver every six months. However, for the Obama administration and Congress, Russia’s WTO membership is not about regulating or correcting Russia’s “trade behavior.” It is a powerful tool to exert political pressure, so why give it up?
But Russia has leverage of its own. How about refusing to allow American cargo to pass through Russia on to Afghanistan, or bypassing sanctions against Iran, or scuttling its missile defense and arms reduction plans? The “reset” has to be a two-way street.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.