It seems safe to say that the GOP will pick up the Senate this year. No one can quite know the details yet, and the scale and extent of the wave (or not) remains again up in the air. But what this actually means – for policy and this presidency – is a more complicated question.
Here’s what we know empirically. The public is underwhelmed by these elections and engagement is low; the average Senate seat gain for a midterm in a second presidential term is six seats for the opposing party (which is a highly likely scenario right now); the president is unpopular and many Republican candidates have made this election about him, while most Democrats (as is their wont) are running fast away; the GOP itself remains, however, also deeply unpopular; wrong-direction numbers are at a high. No great policy debate has defined these races, and when such issues have risen – such as illegal immigration or the ACA – they tend to be virulent reactions to existing law or proposed changes, rather than a constructive, positive agenda. I see no triumph for conservative or liberal ideas here, no positive coalition forming, no set of policies that will be vindicated by this election.
So these midterms mean nothing? That can’t be right either. They seem to me to be reflecting at the very least a sour and dyspeptic mood in the country at large, a well of deepening discontent and concern, and a national funk that remains very potent as a narrative, even if it has become, in my view, close to circular and more than a little hysterical. So what is the reason for this mood – and why has Obama taken the biggest dive because of it?
Here’s my stab at an answer. Even though the economic signals in the US are stronger than anywhere else in the developed world, even as unemployment has fallen, and as energy independence has come closer than anyone recently expected, the underlying structure of the economy remains punishing for the middle class. This, in some ways, can be just as dispiriting as lower levels of growth – because it appears that even when we have a recovery, it will not make things any better for most people. This shoe falling in the public psyche – a sense that we are in a deep structural impasse for the middle class, rather than a temporary recessionary hit – means a profound disillusionment with the future. And the fact that neither party seems to have a workable answer to this problem intensifies the sense of drift.
Events overseas have had another, deeply depressing effect. The last great triumph of the US – the end of the Cold War, the liberation of Central Europe, the emergence of a democratic Russia – is now revealed as something more complicated. If Americans thought that the days were long gone that they had to worry about Russian military power, they’ve been disabused of that fact this past year. Then the other recent success: getting out of Iraq and defeating al Qaeda. For many of us, this was one of Obama’s greatest achievements: to cauterize the catastrophe of the Iraq War, to decimate al Qaeda’s forces in Af-Pak, and to enable us to move forward toward a more normal world. The emergence of ISIS has dimmed that hope as well. It does two things at once: it calls into question whether our departure from Iraq can be sustained, and it presents the threat of Jihadist terror as once again real and imminent. So ISIS is a reminder of the worst of 9/11 and the worst of Iraq. Any sense that we have moved beyond those traumas has been unsettled, at the very least.
So the core narrative of the Obama presidency – rescuing us from a second Great Depression and extricating us from a doomed strategy in response to Jihadism – has been eclipsed by events. And that’s why Obama has lost the thread. He has lost the clear story-line that defined his presidency. And he has, as yet, been unable to construct another, consumed, as he has been, by the pragmatism of the moment.
You can argue, and I would, that Obama is not really responsible for the events behind this narrative-collapse.