US midterm elections 2014, I : what can Barack Obama possibly do?

Nov 4th, 2014 | By | Category: In Brief

From left: Greg Orme, Kelli Allman, Barack Obama and Megan Hughes at Allman’s parents’ house in Honolulu. On the night of Obama’s high school senior prom, 1979.

[UPDATED NOV 5]. Those of us who believe that history and the future will judge Barack Obama a much more seminal and successful US president than the present is doing can only look at the midterm elections this Tuesday, November 4, 2014 and weep.

The prospects for sitting administrations in such contests are almost never good. But it seems all too likely that things will be even at least somewhat worse for President Obama and his Democratic Party in 2014.

Barack Obama, Chicago, 1995 — Photo: Marc PoKempner.

He will himself of course remain in office until the early days of 2017. But it appears to be virtually certain that the Republicans will maintain and perhaps even extend their majority in the House of Representatives on November 4.  And according to the New York Times Republicans now have “about a 70% chance” of wresting control of the Senate from the Democrats as well.

If the Democrats do finally lose their Senate majority, that will certainly look bad symbolically. But its practical impact may not be all that enormous. Control of the Senate over the past few years, while the Republicans commanded the House, has not really seemed to do either President Obama or the Democrats at large much good.

Obama signs the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White House, March 23, 2010.

Similarly, control of the Senate as well as the House may not do the Republicans all that much good either. It may only focus more of the blame for what they say is going wrong on them!

At the same time, it is almost authentically depressing to read such reports as : “Fewer than half of registered US voters are aware of the basic fact that the Republican party currently holds the House, while Democrats hold the Senate. That proportion – and voter participation in general – seems in danger of dropping off further still, with negative implications for the health of American democracy.”

Obamas at church on Inauguration Day 2013.

From yet another depressing angle, Josh Boak at the Associated Press has been worrying that the “midterm slugfest for control of the US Senate could have far-reaching effects on the economy … Tuesday’s elections come just as US growth has been showing consistent improvement, thanks in part to a congressional truce on budget fights. Previous such fights shut down the government and raised the specter of a default on the federal debt. A repeat of either could damage the economic recovery….”

A Gallup poll out yesterday suggests that an utterly humiliating “wave” over the president’s party, as in the 2006 and 2010 midterm elections, may not be all that likely in 2014. But even if  only part of the worst does happen – and the Republicans still walk away from Tuesday night with at least working majorities in both the House and the Senate (and especially if they let their wildest sides guide their big strategic thinking) – what can Barack Obama possibly do?

UPDATE NOV 5, 1:30 AM ET : The main takeaway from watching the not-so-happy gang at MSNBC ponder what has happened seems to be “if this isn’t a Republican wave, what would be?” Various details remain unclear, but it is certain that, one way or another, Republicans have won at least a bare majority in the Senate. They will indeed be controlling both houses of Congress for the last two years of the Obama presidency.

Mitch McConnell waves to supporters with his wife, former United States Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, at his midterm election night rally in Louisville, Kentucky, November 4, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/JOHN SOMMERS II.

Republicans also appear to be doing very well in various state Governor elections. The scene is not altogether gloomy. Jeanne Shaheen hung onto her New Hampshire Senate seat for the Democrats. And Democrat Tom Wolf defeated the incumbent Republican Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett. But, however you finally look at things, November 4, 2014 was not a good day for Democrats (and their president!)  in the USA today.

For a little more detail see : “Republicans seize control of Senate in U.S. midterm elections” ; “Mitch McConnell Wins 6th Term in U.S. Senate” ; “In New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen Beats Scott Brown to Keep Senate Seat” ; “Wolf Ousts Corbett in Pennsylvania Governor’s Race.”

Finally, I have just read over what I wrote earlier in the material that follows if you click on “Read the rest of this page” and/or scroll below. And, granting that almost nothing people like me recommend in such matters almost ever happens, I myself felt even more persuaded by what I had written earlier than I remember being when I first wrote it! And that must mean something. Somehow. One way or another. Over Barack Obama’s perhaps quite fascinating last two years!

* * * *

Among hopefully many other things, I find two possibilities currently in the air for Barack Obama’s beleaguered last two years especially intriguing. They both involve more or less practical powers that he has only rarely exercised in his presidency so far.

1. Veto baby veto

Barack Obama in 1995 in his office at the University of Chicago Law School. Photo: Marc PoKempner.

As explained by James Warren in the (lately almost hostile and certainly critical?) New York Daily News, if the worst does happen Tuesday night, Barack Obama might start reading up on Gerald Ford.

Here Mr. Warren is under the self-confessed tutelage of “Andrew Rudalevige, a Bowdoin College political scientist.” But in Warren’s own admirably economical shorthand : “In a similar situation, Republican Ford’s strategy in 1975-1976 was to turn to the presidential veto, or to use the threat as a bargaining tactic.”

There are at least two (er … three?) further wrinkles here :

(1) Presidential vetoes of congressional legislation can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate. But it seems that virtually none of the polling extant for the 2014 midterms is suggesting Republicans could win as many as two-thirds of the seats in either place.

(2) There is some intriguing (and seemingly reliable enough) historical background on presidential vetoes in a Wikipedia article called “List of United States presidential vetoes.”

The grand champion of veto users by far is the inventor of the depression-era New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt – with 635 to his credit. Some of this relates to his longer than usual time in office, but even allowing for that he set a high standard, presumably in the service of his remarkable rescue and revival of democracy in America in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Almost right at the other end of the scale, Barack Obama has a mere two (2) vetoes to his credit so far. The last real big spender was Dwight Eisenhower (181 vetoes).  And he was followed by :

John Kennedy – 21

Lyndon Johnson – 30

Richard Nixon – 43

Gerald Ford – 66

Jimmy Carter – 31

Ronald Reagan – 78

George H.W. Bush – 44

Bill Clinton – 37

George W. Bush – 12

(3) Whatever else, President Obama has some historical room to spread his wings as a strategic practitioner of presidential veto power. You could belittle this as a primarily negative power. The president in this case can stop his opponents’ wildest halucinations (see Josh Boak’s worries about the economic recovery above, eg) from seeing the ultimate light of day. But he cannot further his own agenda.

Obama posing in the Green Room of the White House with wife Michelle and daughters Sasha and Malia in 2009. Annie Leibovitz.

There is, however, a more positive or constructive use of the veto power. James Warren talks about this as using “the threat as a bargaining tactic.” And the Wikipedia article noted above has two intriguing sentences on “Veto threat” :

Occasionally, a President either publicly or privately threatens Congress with a veto to influence the content or passage of legislation. There is no record of what officially constitutes a “veto threat,” or how many have been made over the years, but it has become a staple of Presidential politics and a sometimes effective way of shaping policy.”

(And President Obama has already used this ploy at least once. See “Obama Issues Rare Veto Threat on Iran Bill … Bipartisan Senate Bill Would Slap Tehran With New Sanctions.”)

2. Teddy Roosevelt’s bully pulpit

Reading to young kids during 1995 IL State Senate campaign — Photo: Marc PoKempner.

Ken Burns’s TV series on the Roosevelts usefully reminds us that the career of Theodore Roosevelt (Republican president, 1901—1909) is important background for the career of the husband of his niece Eleanor, Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democratic president, 1933—1945).

Teddy Roosevelt also has a respectable 82 vetoes of Congressional legislation to his credit. On this model President Obama has 80 vetoes left for his last two years – whether the Republicans take command of the Senate or not.

The Teddy Roosevelt who ran as leader of a new Progressive Party in 1912 arguably has another message for someone his ghost may well be pleased (if somewhat astonished) to recognize among his present-day successors.

This Roosevelt was the inventor of something called the “bully pulpit.” And this has been well enough described in another Wikipedia article : “A bully pulpit is a position sufficiently conspicuous to provide an opportunity to speak out and be listened to … This term was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, who referred to the White House as a “bully pulpit”, by which he meant a terrific platform from which to advocate an agenda.”

Obama at a 2010 briefing on the BP Oil Spill at the Coast Guard Station Venice in Venice, Louisiana.

President Obama has given some brilliant speeches in his presidency so far. Even many of his enemies agree that he can be a brilliant and even effective political and more general public speaker. As best as I can make out from the wilderness north of the Great Lakes, however, he has not really used the White House bully pulpit as a terrific platform from which to advocate the kind of present-day progressive agenda so many of us still believe he still believes in.

There even appear to be those in President Obama’s own party who feel he may not actually have the kind of intellectual and spiritual depth that could support some fresh articulation of a progressive agenda for our time.

Yet there seems to be something of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in almost all African American politicians. And while President Obama’s Hawaiian multicultural youth may have blunted this side of his heritage, there are recurrent signs that it somehow survives.

There also seems at least a chance of some size that, under the lame duck pressures of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, we may finally start to hear the beginnings of a reinvigorated old gospel of progress from a new White House bully pulpit. (Accompanied by whatever pilot projects may be possible? Or does the Obama administration have that part of things pretty much done already?)

And this could start to pave the way towards a more secure future for democracy in America in the 21st century. And the early stretches of pavement could give some extra dynamism and energy to a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign in 2016 …

I won’t go on. I agree that such current criticisms as Julian Zelizer’s “Obama’s long fall …  How a liberal hero who boasted of transcending politics got dragged so far down” cast some strong shadows. I have not yet reached the point myself, however, where I believe the active shelf life  of President Barack Obama is over. Or I don’t agree with the Princeton political historian Professor Zelizer that the Obama “genie is exhausted, and it is out of the bottle.”

Perhaps because I don’t even live in the USA, it is easier for me to believe that President Barack Obama has done and is still doing much better than Julian Zelizer and a great many others, right or left, perceive – in both foreign and domestic policy. A red state Obama supporter interviewed on I think the PBS Newshour the other night said he thought most of his neighbours’ criticism of the president was “irrational.” And he made a lot of sense to me.

If the Obama White House does fall apart or at any rate effectively go to sleep over its last two years, I will concede I was wrong in my current assessments. But until this actually happens I am going to continue holding out hope for a last two years of bully pulpit fervour and deft uses of presidential vetoes of congressional legislation – and veto threats, that could finally be the most interesting and important part of the first African American president’s two terms in office.

And now, at any rate, I am ready to suffer through the slings and arrows of watching the  US midterm election results on TV. (Fortified by various refreshments to be sure – and if it gets really bad you can watch more episodes of The Guardian on Netflix, or whatever else you like.)

As the mid 20th century Canadian historian Frank Underhill once quipped, “Canadians always vote Democratic in American elections.” But that’s not going to help the Democrats tonight.

Fortunately for Republicans, Canadians do not actually get to vote in American elections. Because Canada is supposed to be a separate country. And Republicans might want to bear this in mind, whenever they start to think too wildly about invading Canada, and putting it under the stars and stripes at last.

Finally, as Canadians already know, it’s more fun watching election results roll in on TV when you don’t really have a personal stake in the election yourself. Even if you would vote Democratic if you could.

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