After a Tough First Mid-Term, Obama Faces a Classic Presidential Test

Why, yes, of course the Republicans will remember November 2, 2010, fondly. They won control of the U.S. House,
shrunk the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, became a
significantly more dominant political player states that are about to
begin the redistricting process that will set lines for congressional
races for the next decade and inflicted a heap of heartbreak on
progressives by defeating Democrats such as Wisconsin Senator Russ

And, yes, of course, that's a short-term bummer for Barack Obama, who
was right when he said before the election that a shift in the
congressional balance toward the Republicans would make his job a whole
lot harder.

But for all the talk of landslides, waves and tsunamis, 2010 produced a relatively typical mid-term election for a new president.

Obama and the Democrats actually fared better than did Bill Clinton and the Democrats of 1994.

In a reasonably parallel circumstance -- politically, if
not economically -- a first-term Democratic president went into his
first mid-terms with solid majorities in the House and Senate and came
out with solid Republican majorities. Newt Gingrich's "Republican
Revolution" shifted 54 House seats from the Democrats to the Republicans
and gave the former speaker a 230 to 204 majority. Though there are
still races to be settled, it looks this year like Ohio Congressman John
Boehner will begin his speakership with a similar majority.

The unfortunate reality of what passes for political analysis these
days is that most analysts will -- for better or worse -- make the 1994
comparison and be done with it.

But that misses the broader historical reality.

The fact is that the
first mid-terms of new presidents have more often than not resulted in
serious setbacks for the party that controls the White House.
And that goes double in difficult economic times.

Ronald Reagan, fresh from a landslide win in 1980 that gave
Republicans clear control of the Senate for the first time in a quarter
century and a big enough House delegation to establish a coalition with
conservative southern Democrats that enacted much of the "Reaganomics"
agenda, saw House Speaker Tip O'Neill's Democrats pick up 27 seats in
the 1982 mid-term election. With only 166 members in the House, Reagan's
Republicans held fewer seats than at any times from 1980 to today, and
Reagan's agenda had no choice but to start bargaining with liberal
Democrats such as O'Neill and Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy.

After Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide, Democrats enjoyed a 68-32
majority in the Senate and a 295-140 majority in the House. In 1966,
Republicans picked up four Senate seats and 47 House seats, while
sweeping statehouses across the country. That election, as much as the
Vietnam War, dialed back Johnson's Great Society ambitions.

But Johnson had it easy compared with Harry Truman. Truman's
Democrats went into the 1946 mid-term election with a 57-38 majority in
the Senate and a 243-190 majority in the House. They came out of them
facing Republican majorities of 51-45 in the Senate and 246-188 in the

The analysis of the 1946 election was that Truman was doomed politically.

As it turned out he was reelected in 1948 and voters handed him a
54-42 Democratic majority in the Senate and a 263-171 majority in the
House. With more northern and western Democrats elected in both
chambers, Truman was actually better positioned to govern as a liberal.

Truman's story is the one Obama and congressional Democrats will take the most comfort from when all the 2010 votes are counted.

But Truman is not the only president who was reelected two years
after a mid-term saw his party suffer severe setbacks. Franklin
Roosevelt's Democrats and their Progressive and Farmer-Labor allies lost
80 House seats and a half dozen Senate seats in 1938, only to see FDR
overwhelmingly reelected in 1940. Reagan came back from the 1982 setback
to secure a 49-seat reelection landslide in 1984. Clinton lost it all
in 1994 and then won reelection with ease in 1996.

In fact, there is some evidence that losing big in the first mid-term
election might be better for a sitting president than losing small.
Consider this: in 1978, first-term President Jimmy Carter's Democratic
Party lost just three Senate seats and 15 House seats -- not so much a
setback as a correction after the dramatic Democratic advances of the
post-Watergate elections.

Two years later, Carter lost to Reagan and Democrats shed a dozen
Senate seats (including those of Senate giants Frank Church, Gaylord
Nelson and George McGovern) and 35 House seats.

It is the Carter comparison that Obama must hope to avoid.

But to do so, he is going to have to make a smart calculation. Obama
is unlikely to have the robust economy that Clinton enjoyed, so
triangulation and compromise are unlikely to do much more than reinforce
Republican messaging. If he is smart, Obama will borrow the a page from
Truman's playbook. Faced with a reactionary Republican Congress, Truman
pulled out his veto pen, took to the bully pulpit and gave 'em hell.

Truman also counseled against compromise, explaining that: "Given the
choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican,
people will vote for a real Republican all the time."

Of all the political lessons that Barack Obama will take from the
2010 mid-term elections that, undoubtedly, is the most important one.

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