What Do These Midterms Mean?

President Obama Delivers Statement In East Room Of White House

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. The forces that have suppressed the median wage in this country for decades now are beyond his or any president’s power to change – and his economic record is about as impressive as it gets under the brutal circumstances he inherited. Putin, for that matter, was emerging as a neo-fascist dictator in the Bush years, and the roots of his rage lie, in many ways, in events in the 1990s. As for Iraq, another bout of sectarian warfare was utterly predictable, given the inevitable failure to construct a multi-sectarian government in the wake of our decapitation of the Iraqi state in 2003. The Sunni insurgency that we fought for ten years has just bided its time and is now back again in our absence. Did anyone but fantastists like McCain ever really doubt this would happen?

But most Americans are not going to parse these trends and events and come to some nuanced view. They see the economy as still punishing, Jihadist terror just as frightening, and they are increasingly unable to avoid the fact that we lost – repeat, lost – the Iraq War. They’re also aware that the US, after Iraq, simply has historically low leverage and power in the world at large, as the near-uselessness of our massive military in shaping the world as we would like has been exposed in the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan. Now throw in a big bucket of Ebola, and what on earth is there to be cheerful about? And who else do you hold responsible if not the president?

All of this has been exacerbated by the natural inclination of the opposition party to pile on and use this to promote their favorite themes, if not their actual policies. They want to create a Carter-like narrative that can bring down the Democrats and turn the Obama presidency into an asterisk. But the difference between now and the late 1970s is that Obama is not a Carter and the GOP have no Reagan, or, more importantly, no persuasive critique of Obama that is supplemented by a viable alternative policy agenda that isn’t just a warmed-over version of the 1980s. Rand Paul’s foreign policy vision is the exception to this rule – which is why he probably has no chance in the primaries against the Jacksonian blowhards who command a belligerent majority of the base.

Hence the mood, I’d argue. And the depression behind it. The future as yet seems to contain no new or rallying figure to chart a different course. Ever-greater gridlock seems the likeliest result of the mid-terms; polarization continues to deepen geographically and on-line; the Democrats have only an exhausted, conventional dynasty to offer in 2016; and the Republicans either have dangerous demagogues, like Christie or Cruz, or lightweights, like Walker or Rubio or Paul, or, even another fricking Bush.

So I see this election as more of a primal moan than anything else. Its core meaning is both hard to pin down and yet all around us. Maybe venting will make the atmosphere a little less gloomy. That’s one function of elections, after all. But after that, the harder but more vital task of deciding how to address that gloom with policy and direction is up for grabs. And it is not too late for Obama to lead the way, to construct a new narrative that is as honest and as realist as it is, beneath it all, optimistic. It’s a hard task – but since his likeliest successors are failing to do so, he has as good a shot as any. In these circumstances, treating the last two years of a presidency as irrelevant could not be more wrong. They could, with the right policies and the right message, be the most relevant of them all.

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the U.S. government’s response to the Ebola virus during an event in the East Room of the White House October 29, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama praised efforts by members of the American medical community in the fight against Ebola during his remarks. By Win McNamee/Getty Images.)