Twenty-one months after Barack Obama was inaugurated on a wave of hope for change in America’s politics and policies, at least two important and seemingly contradictory things can be said.
First, there has been a series of significant progressive reforms: an economic stimulus law that contains far-reaching antipoverty, infrastructure, green-job and conservation measures, and that is widely credited with pulling the economy from the brink; comprehensive healthcare reform that has eluded presidents of both parties for a century; and financial regulatory reform.
For progressives, each of these accomplishments is flawed—the stimulus could have been bigger, there could have been a public option in healthcare and more teeth in financial regulation—but they are long strides in the right direction, and given the near-total opposition of Republicans and the conservatism of key Democrats, this is an impressive substantive record that has made and will make a big difference in people’s lives.
Second, the nation’s politics are more toxic than ever. The president’s approval ratings have fallen steadily, even if they seem to have bottomed out. Independents are said to be disillusioned, many Democrats are demoralized and Republicans are in the grip of an increasingly—there is no other way to say it—crazy "base," ousting very conservative officeholders in favor of extremist Tea Party candidates who oppose virtually every role government plays.
That’s where things stand today.
Two Possible Scenarios
It seems likely, even beyond the usual midterm swings, that the Republicans will make significant electoral gains, perhaps retaking the House of Representatives and even the Senate. The only bulwark against that could be a newly feisty president, a resurgent progressive movement energizing voters or the scary wackiness of many Republican candidates that renders them simply unelectable. But the latter point is not something to be sanguine about, given the election of waves of similarly "unelectable" candidates in 1980 and 1994, many of whom seem like virtual statesmen in the present environment.
Under the best scenario we can imagine, with retained but narrower Democratic majorities, it is likely that the 2009–10 period of legislative reform, which progressives fought for vigorously, is over. It is possible that comprehensive immigration reform, which some see as being in the long-term interests of Republicans as well as Democrats, can be resurrected in a Congressional lame-duck session or in 2011. But the Tea Party movement taking over the Republican Party has a strongly nativist flavor that makes this challenging, to say the least. The need to energize his core constituencies in the run-up to the 2012 elections may make President Obama more open to dramatic uses of executive power to address issues that matter to progressives, but there is no question that it will be very difficult to enact sweeping legislation in a more widely divided Congress.
Under the worst scenario, Republican majorities, newly seeded with zealots, would take control of both houses of Congress, forcing the president and progressive advocates into a defensive posture in which the key tool available would be a veto pen. Republicans would likely unleash a tsunami of recrimination and investigation that, given the current state of discourse, would make the post-1994 Congressional attacks on the Clinton administration look like the Era of Good Feelings.