The Republicans have claimed the US Senate, extended their majority in the US House and secured more than their share of victories in state and local races. Now every effort will be made by the many critics of Barack Obama to employ the results of the 2014 midterm elections in the work of writing the president off as a lame duck.
But sixth-year setbacks are common for presidents. And Obama need not let this one define him. Indeed, he has a duty to defend the mandates he received in 2008 and 2012.
This is the point of beginning for the final stage of Obama’s presidency. He can shape the narrative. But if he fails to do so, others will. And in so doing they will diminish not just the president but the will of the people who elected him twice.
This will have less to do with policy—since a gridlocked Washington is likely to remain gridlocked on many issues—than with personalities and palace intrigues that so appeal to political and media elites. Yet, the defining process is significant, as it can influence decisions about whether to negotiate or veto, to hold firm for principles or to search for “grand bargains,” to rally the base or bend to the opposition.
Even before the results started coming in on Tuesday night, much of the pre-election prognostication had Obama headed for full lame-duck status. Never mind that the Republicans had most of the advantages going into the 2014 election cycle: fewer Senate seats to defend, a pattern of Democratic retirements in Republican-leaning states such as Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia; plenty of billionaire friends and corporate allies; and a second-term president with reduced approval ratings. There was never any doubt that a shift in control of the chamber was going to herald a full flurry of “definitive” statements and how Obama has been checked and balanced for the final quarter of his eight years in office.
But does a poor election result necessarily mark the end of a president’s relevance? Should a president whose party fails to perform be consigned to the dustbin of history?
Is this what history proposes?
Consider Ronald Reagan. His Republican allies lost control of the Senate in the midterm election of 1986, the sixth year of his presidency. They went into that year’s contest with fifty-three seats and came out with forty-five. The House was already run by the Democrats, and the eight-seat shift in the Senate was dramatic. Yet most Republicans would tell you that Reagan remained a significant figure in American politics; and, it should be noted, in 1989 he handed the presidency off to another Republican president.