It is remarkable that this president who came to office with such energy and a mandate for change, fully determined to be a transformational president, and having both houses of Congress on his side, should come to such crashing defeat less than two years into his administration. Presidents have typically suffered a setback at the midpoint in their administrations. They made some bold initiatives and they addressed some problems with measures that hadn't yet shown fruit. So Ronald Reagan lost 26 seats in the House of Representatives, George H.W. Bush lost just eight, and Bill Clinton lost a whopping 52 seats. (George W. Bush gained six, but it was just a year after 9/11.) But last night the Republicans picked up 60 seats in the House, the largest swing in party representation since 1948, and they decisively broke the Democrats' dominance in the Senate.
What makes this all the more interesting is that after 22 months of pursuing an aggressive legislative agenda, the Obama Democrats had no great and popular accomplishment they could offer to justify their continued stewardship of power. Their two great initiatives were the president's economic stimulus package to "jump-start" the economy and his health insurance reform that was to extend coverage to the uninsured and bring rising health costs under control. But only a small handful of Democrats campaigned on those accomplishments, and even they eventually dropped the matters.
How could president and people, so happily wed in November of 2008, head in such opposite directions so consistently for the next two years and have such an angry separation as we saw last night?
Obama's first great initiative was the $787 billion economic stimulus package. If it had jolted the economy back to life as promised, there would have been no complaints. But the unemployment numbers have remained stable between 9 and 10 percent. At the same time, the package was heavily saturated with pet Democratic spending projects wholly unrelated to job creation, and some of the job "creation" was just the preservation of union jobs for Democratic Party supporters.
People saw the usual political self-service at the public's expense. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel's words, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," became like a banner over the administration. Every time the public heard these words, many remembered a hugely expensive stimulus-spending package that subordinated the public good to political gain.
Health insurance reform was to be Obama's crowning achievement. It should have sealed the Obama governing coalition for generations to come. Instead, polling indicates that over half the people want it repealed. The near trillion-dollar price tag at a time of economic stress made the bill unpopular from the start. Finding support in Congress melting away, Obama resorted to what many saw as corrupt deals to buy off senators who saw the bill as bad for their states. So we had "the Cornhusker Kickback," "the Louisiana Purchase," and "the Florida Flim-flam." This gave already unpopular legislation an especially bad smell in the final stages of its negotiation. When they finally sewed the monster together and found that it still couldn't rise from the table, the Democrats openly considered parliamentary maneuvers whereby they could pass the bill in the House of Representatives without actually having a majority, i.e., the people's consent. Again, the public noticed and took it personally.
If you are going to govern a free people, deriving your just authority from their consent, you cannot depart too far from their known wishes. There are times when a leader has to be strong when the people falter in their judgment and resolve. But that cannot pass over into paternalistic arrogance. Last night's vote tells the president to back off from precisely that, especially where it has concerned national health insurance reform. But will he hear, and will he agree to modify the unpopular legislation?
This election has been, as expected, a dramatic public rebuke to the president, his party, and the way they have spent most of their time since the 2008 election. In January, President Obama said, "I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president." If he sticks to what he thinks is good and what a majority of the people he serves clearly doesn't want, then, in 2012, president and people may well arrive at a mutually agreeable arrangement. But victorious Republicans should not make the same mistakes and instead remain faithful where others have wandered.
See WORLD's interactive national map for complete election results from across the country.