Congressional midterm elections, the poor cousin to presidential voting in the American political system, will take on a critical role for President Barack Obama in November. The results may well determine whether he will become a premature lame duck two years before his second and last term expires.
If the Democrats lose the U.S. Senate, where they hold a practical 55-45 voting control with the help of Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, the Republicans will be able to intensify the obstructionism with which they have paralyzed the Obama legislative agenda in the House of Representatives over the last nearly six years.
The loss of six Democratic-held Senate seats (or five, if Mr. King decides to caucus with the Republicans, a move he has said he might consider) would hit Mr. Obama with a double whammy of partisan opposition in Congress for the first time.
It doesn't help the president's cause that, historically, voter participation drops in midterm elections, including among the black, ethnic and minority voters so critical to the success of Democratic candidates. Mr. Obama's party has shown notable dedication to driving up its turnout this fall, but without a presidential nominee at the top of the ticket in each state, the effort may be compromised.
There are two basic approaches to achieve the desired result. One is to pour paid party staff, volunteers and campaign money into the Senate races in the most hotly contested states. The other is to attempt to "nationalize" these races by emphasizing broad issues that the Democratic Party, and Mr. Obama, are pushing.
In other words, by campaigning not on local issues embraced by the Democratic incumbent or nominee, but rather linking him or her to issues of national significance and to the Democratic president, the hope is to carry that candidate to office through party loyalty or issue affinity. But does Mr. Obama have long enough coattails anymore?
In 2008, his huge personal appeal as potentially the first black American president and an effective campaigner brought the Democrats not only the White House but control of both houses of Congress. However, in the 2010 midterms, with Obama off the ticket, the House Democrats suffered their largest defeat in 72 years, and with their lost majority went much of Mr. Obama's political muscle.
The House Republicans used their new leverage to erode Mr. Obama's strength, to the point that in 2012, with him again leading the Democratic ticket, he was re-elected but failed to regain control of the House. There, the Republicans under Speaker John Boehner used a burgeoning national issue — Obamacare — to preserve and increase the House GOP majority and remain a political thorn in the Democratic president's hide.
Now, in 2014, in the wake of the flawed early rollout of his health-care insurance law and mounting foreign policy crises, it may not make much sense for the Democrats to "nationalize" this fall's congressional midterm elections.
Mr. Obama's concerted efforts to disentangle the country from what he has called "a perpetual war footing" seem to reflect a wide weariness on the American home front. But the current inflaming of Ukraine and the Middle East gives critics like Republican Sen. John McCain and others ample grounds to "nationalize" the midterms against a president of diminished popularity.
Under the most ordinary circumstances, a second-term president approaching his constitutional exit from the Oval Office inevitably loses political clout. This time around, Mr. Obama's influence is already being sapped somewhat by the very early Democratic focus on Hillary Clinton as Mr. Obama's successor as the likely 2016 party presidential nominee, should she run.
All this leaves Mr. Obama in a situation far different from 1995 when Bill Clinton, harassed by the threat of government shutdown from another House Republican group led by Newt Gingrich, felt obliged to declare that "the president is relevant here." Mr. Clinton toughened up then and Mr. Gingrich had to surrender.
Mr. Obama may be facing a similar threat of irrelevance now in the midterms. If his party can't hold onto the Senate in November, his final two years as a lame duck may well mean more of the same legislative frustration as we saw in the last six.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.
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