Message to Democrats: Don't Worry, Be Happy!
There are good reasons to be hopeful after the midterm elections. Just look at what happened in 1994.
The headlines tell us of big Republican gains in these midterm elections, including the retaking of control of the U.S. House of Representatives. They also point to a number of victories for candidates from the far-right Tea Party movement. True enough. And this is news.
But I am not depressed or alarmed by these election returns. Indeed, this will no doubt surprise many people: I believe Obama is on track for re-election in 2012 and that the Democrats can see in last night's results the path to success two years from now.
The result of this election is an endorsement neither of a right-wing agenda nor of Republican ideology. Consistent with long historical precedent, it is centrally a referendum on economic performance. As has long been the case, the party in power loses and loses big when an economic downturn has been long and deep. And this economic downturn has been that and more. Exit polls show clearly that for two-thirds of voters, the economy was the dominant consideration in how they voted.
For Democrats, this election is worse than the 1994 midterm with regard to losses in the House; Obama's losses are worse than Bill Clinton's. Obama, however, has presided over a far deeper recession. At the time of the 1994 midterm elections, the national unemployment rate was around 6 percent. Today unemployment is closer to 10 percent, indicative of much more widespread economic uncertainty and hardship. And this is almost certainly the principal reason that Obama's midterm setback in the House involves nine more seats than Clinton lost.
There is almost no difference between Obama's current approval rating and that endured by Clinton in 1994, with both at roughly 45 percent approval. The bigger difference between now and then -- between Obama's standing and that of Clinton -- is that 40 percent of voters thought the country was headed in "the right direction" under Clinton in 1994, but only 32 percent said so going into this year's elections, according to an October CBS News Poll.
The difference here is the state of economy. To wit, this election is not a repudiation of a liberal agenda run amok or of an Obama administration out of touch with the American people. It is a loud declaration of deep disappointment with the weak and uneven pace of the economic recovery after a catastrophic economic downturn.