The Year in Review: Obama's shellacking

Isolated by the audacity of voters
Click to follow

"Black man Given Nation's Worst Job." That was the delicious headline in the satirical paper The Onion, in the heady days after Barack Obama's rousing election triumph. Back then we all laughed. Two years on, that same same Barack Obama is struggling to rescue his presidency, amid economic stagnation, massive deficits and continuing foreign wars, while the America that placed its faith in him is stricken by self-doubt, uncertainty and a pervasive sense of decline. But one thing at least is clear: The Onion had it spot-on.

No presidency is easy, and nothing ages a man like a spell in the Oval Office. But the job that Obama inherited from George W Bush, by any objective assessment, was the hardest in generations. For a while, he could blame his problems on his predecessor, but in America memories are short. The simple explanation of his current difficulties is that 2010 was the year when Bush's wars and Bush's economy became Obama's.

That these last midterm elections would be tough for Obama was no surprise. A President's party almost invariably loses ground in the midterms following his victory, and after their successive triumphs of 2006 and 2008 the Democrats were especially vulnerable. But few at the start of the year could have predicted what would happen on 2 November. The party did manage to hang on to the Senate, albeit with a sharply reduced majority. In the House however the Republicans gained an astounding 63 seats to win a majority, in the biggest swing since Second World War.

The Democratic debacle had several causes. The party's Congressional leadership was seen as too liberal and out-of-touch with ordinary citizens. An instinctive hankering of voters for divided government also played a part, as did deepening disgust at the ever-worsening partisanship on Capitol Hill, and the failure of Congress to deal with the country's problems. The mood, so evident in the surge of the Tea Party movement, was directed at incumbents of every hue – and as the party with most incumbents, the Democrats had most to lose. But mid-term elections are also a referendum on the president himself, and 2010 was no exception.

In their desperation to be rid of Bush, Americans took a colossal political punt. In 2008 they entrusted the White House to a man with an amazing life story, whose talents were undoubted, but whose public record consisted of little more than a single speech: the stunning keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston that launched Obama, then a virtually unknown state legislator from Illinois, to national fame.

John F Kennedy – with whom Obama is so often compared – was a gnarled veteran by comparison when he was elected in 1960, after six years in the House followed by eight as a Senator. The hopes projected upon Obama were always unreal: no single individual was ever going to wave a magic wand over the economy, satisfy the various demands of 300 million Americans and solve the problems of the world at a stroke. But not only have these miracles failed to occur; the man himself has shown himself possessed of distinctly human failings. Especially surprising is that perhaps the most glaring of those failing has been where he was once perceived as strongest: as a communicator of ideas.

If anything won Obama the White House, and enabled him in 2008 to defeat the formidable Clinton machine, it was his ability as a campaigner. Not only did he have a message; he conveyed it in terms both rational and uplifting, that won over not just natural Democratic constituencies like liberals, blacks and other minorities, but centrists and independents as well.

After Bush's two narrow wins in 2000 and 2004, Obama's victory in 2008 seemed to redraw the political map of the US, penning the Republicans back to the South, the Plains and the Rocky Mountains. It was, the analysts proclaimed, a "watershed election" to match 1932, 1968 or 1980, ushering in a generation of Democratic dominance.

It's not that Obama has achieved little. For all the vituperation directed at Congress, and despite scorched earth opposition from the Republicans, he has managed to push through the biggest stimulus package in US history, one that may well have prevented the Great Recession from becoming a second Great Depression. In 2010 he signed into law the most ambitious healthcare reform in half a century, and the biggest overhaul of US financial market regulations since the 1930s. Rarely though has he moved aggressively to take charge of events; sometimes it was hard to fathom where he wanted to take the country.

The "bully pulpit" is the most potent weapon of any president. But Obama, so powerful a preacher on the campaign trail, has been strangely unwilling to use it from the Oval Office. In the process he has often seemed to cede the initative to his foes – as in the summer of 2009 when his healthcare proposals were savaged at Republican and Tea Party town hall meetings across the country, and the White House remained virtually silent on the sidelines. For Republicans, events proved Obama was a soft touch, who inspired neither fear nor respect. They acted accordingly, and in electoral terms at least, have been amply vindicated.

The truth is more complicated; indeed Obama is among the toughest of recent presidents to fathom. He is nowhere near as gregarious as Bill Clinton, and far less inclined to show his emotions. His instincts are liberal – but he is far less ideological than, say, George W Bush. Obama's style is cool, detached and cerebral. At times he seems almost passive. He is the most rational of presidents; his mistake is to expect his opponents to behave in a similar vein.

Above all Obama is a pragmatist – a quality he will certainly need in the changed political landscape between now and 2012, when he presumably will seek a second term. The quick post-election compromise with Republicans to prolong the Bush-era tax cuts in their entirety for two years, in return for an extension of jobless benefits and other tax reductions, was surely a signal of the path he will take.

But much more will be required to rebuild the coalition that swept him into the Oval Office. In the run-up to the November "shellacking", Obama managed to disappoint both his liberal base and the independents he once captivated, but who defected in droves to the Republicans in the midterm vote.

Liberals were upset by Obama's speedy abandonment of a public insurance option in the healthcare battle, by the troop surge in Afghanistan, and his failure to close Guantanamo Bay. Independents resented his deference to the liberal Democratic majority in Congress, and his failure to deliver on one of his central campaign promises, that he would restore civility and bipartisanship to Washington. Some hope, hardened observers of Beltway politics will say. But the fact both sides are unhappy underlines his failure to get his message across.

However, there is plenty of time to repair the damage. Obama stands right now roughly where the last two Democrats in the White House, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, found themselves at similar points in their presidencies – and displays similarities with both. The example to avoid of course is Carter, who like Obama rose from virtual obscurity to win the presidency. By late 1978 voters had still to make up their minds; two years later (admittedly in part thanks to the trauma of the Iran hostage crisis), they concluded that Carter was weak and ineffectual and chose Ronald Reagan by a landslide.

Clinton, by contrast, flourished after a midterm disaster in 1994 that saw Republicans win back the House for the first time in 40 years. Defeat pushed him to the centre, where he deftly outmaneouvred Newt Gingrich's Republicans, and comfortably won a second term.

After suffering an even more severe defeat, the 44th President will seek to do likewise – and the unwonted sight of Clinton holding forth in the White House briefing room after a private lunch with Obama in early December suggests he is already taking tutorials in the art of political rope-a-dope. But Clinton could thank not only over-reaching on the part of the brash Gingrich for his comeback, but also an economic upswing.

The same applies to Obama. He can hope that Republicans will over-reach once again. But the decisive factor will surely be the economy – Obama's economy. If unemployment falls, and statistical recovery turns into tangible recovery come the 2012 election, he can expect a second term. If not, he risks going down in history as another Jimmy Carter.