Obama Backlash in Context

If the polling is anywhere close to accurate, a Republican wave will come crashing down today, repudiating the first two years of the Obama administration. What does it mean?

Kevin Drum argues that, to the extent today’s elections is “a repudiation of the massive overreach” of Barack Obama and the Democrats, it’s historically unusual.

The Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Sixties all produced the bulk of their reforms over the space of about half a dozen years, after which an exhausted public largely called a stop. The Progressive Era ended with World War I and the 19th Amendment and was followed by the business-centric “normalcy” of the Harding-Coolidge years. The New Deal came to a close with the start of World War II, and it was followed first by Harry Truman’s inability to move the chains much on further domestic reform and then the Cold War conservatism of the Eisenhower era. Likewise, the famously massive changes of the Sixties were followed by the equally famous backlash of the 70s and the election of Ronald Reagan.

So repudiation of liberal reform is entirely normal. The big question is: why did Obama only get two years? Especially considering that his reforms, compared to previous eras of liberal activism, were so modest?

Let’s take a few guesses. (1) Obama’s goals themselves were comparatively modest, and that set expectations. Burnout among the electorate may be as much relative to expectations as it is a reaction to absolute measures of change. (2) The internet and the 24/7 media environment have speeded things up. What goes up must come down, but attention spans are so short these days that things come down a lot faster than they used to. (3) On a related note, the congressional environment is more poisonous than in the past, and voters may be reacting to that as much as they’re reacting to Obama’s actual legislative agenda. (4) The economy sucks. People get frustrated with change a lot faster in bad times than in good.

Kevin’s identifying the right factors, but I would rank them 4, 2, 3, 1.

The horrid state of the economy certainly accounts all by itself for at least half of the backlash.  And Obama’s policy responses to it, notably the bailouts, accounts for another chunk.   (Yes, his Republican predecessor had two bailouts of his own, the second of which was pretty controversial.  But Bush was already toast by that point, so it didn’t much matter.)

Against that backdrop, the Outrage Machine went to work well before Obama took the Oath of Office and continues to this day.   We’ve been going in that direction for something like two decades now with talk radio, “Crossfire” and its cable clones, and the blogs.  But those New Media  forms have become the dominant content type over the last few years, with mainstream newspapers, magazines, and broadcast channels becoming virtually indistinguishable from the blogs and vice-versa.   It’s a 24/7/365 cacophony now.

And, yes, while I opposed ObamaCare and many of the other social reforms on this administration’s agenda — and agree with Vice President Biden that they were a really big deal — they’re tweaks in the system compared to the reforms of the Progressive Era, New Deal, and Great Society. Mostly because those reforms already existed, meaning the debate wasn’t (legitimately, anyway) over “socialism” versus “free market” but rather between ratcheting up to 39 percent socialism or maintaining the status quo of 34 percent socialism.

I’m not sure about this conclusion:

But there’s also one other thing: the backlash against Obama probably isn’t all that strong to begin with. As I mentioned on Friday, basic structural factors suggest a Democratic loss of 45 seats in the House this year. If Democrats instead lose 55, that’s evidence of a backlash, but not actually a very big one. It means that we’re still fundamentally the 50-50 nation we all talked about so much after the 2000 election, and a small shift among a small number of voters makes a big difference. It’s true that voters are frustrated and tired, but I think it’s a mistake to allow TV shoutfests to exaggerate just how frustrated and tired they really are.

I agree that Obama is fundamentally popular and that the net result of a 50-something seat shift in the House would return us to the recent norm of 50-50ish party division.  But that’s still a pretty big backlash.  It was one that, as recently as seven or eight months ago, I would have said next to impossible.

Still, it’s a rejection of the “wrong track” the country feels we’re on, rather than a realignment such as the elections of FDR and Reagan signaled.    I still believe that, absent unemployment remaining at these extraordinarily high levels, Obama is the odds-on favorite for victory in 2012.   Partly, that’s because re-electing presidents has always been our default position.   Partly, it’s because I’m skeptical of the electability of the likely Republican nominees.   Mostly, it’s because, unlike FDR in 1932 and Reagan in 1980, the opposition party has yet to articulate a positive change agenda.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    Well, you know, it’s like the guy said, it’s the economy. I’ve argued that it’s delusional for the Republicans to think that the mood of the electorate is based on a rejection of Obama’s programs in principle. The electorate’s pissed because the programs haven’t seemed to work as hoped. As for the future, my goto guy on this is Daniel Larison:

    [If the Republicans do win the House] it would primarily be bad news for the Republican Party and the conservative movement. If that seems a little too counterintuitive for you, let me explain. Should the GOP somehow win the House, they will not have earned it and they will not deserve it, and they will proceed to destroy themselves in very short order. Arguably, there was nothing worse for the American right than to be given the free gift of winning the 2002 midterms, because this win encouraged them to pursue the policies that proved to be their undoing, and a similar win in 2010 would have the same effect of enabling Republicans’ most destructively self-indulgent impulses. …

    After all, even if the Republicans won the House there would not be much that they could do once in office, except waste their time as they did in the ’90s hauling executive branch officials before committees to testify on this or that outrage of the week. They would likely be stymied by the Democratic majority in the Senate on any major legislation, and Obama would veto just about anything they passed if it somehow got to his desk. At the same time, Obama would make them into a much more effective foil for his arguments once they had some hold on power, and out of frustration they would become increasingly obsessed with “getting” Obama and become even less interested in representing the interests of their constituents. http://www.amconmag.com/larison/2010/09/02/kain-and-conservatism/

  2. just me says:

    Honestly I am not so sure that the anger of voters is directed at Obama. I do think they are angry with congress, but I think many voters still like Obama.

    I think what the voters are after is more some balance. I think they like a lot about Obama still, but they want some checks on the agenda. In general divided government tends to be a little more careful than one party owning everything, and right now the democrats own everything with large majorities.

    I would also add that I do think the 24/7 media plays a big role in perception and I think in general the average american wants what they want and they want it now. We are a fast food nation in more ways than just food.

  3. sam says:

    Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

    Ex nihilo nihil fit

  4. Tano says:

    I think your analysis is pretty spot-on James . I would just add the observation that there are 2 facts that emerge consistently from the polling which are rather unusual, and though obscure points perhaps, they may well define that nature of this election.

    First is that the Republican rebound, or wave, or tsunami shows up almost entirely in the likely voter screens – i.e. the enthusiasm question. If you ask the question – where are the American people on the two parties, the answer comes out pretty even. Maybe even a tad in favor of the Dems. If there were mandatory voting in this country, the Dem losses in the House would be in the twenties max, and close to zero in the Senate.

    So, despite all the noise to the contrary from the Tea people, there seems not to be any great ideological rejection of the Dems. In order to have won, the Dems really did not need to persuade anyone, just motivate them – do a better job at communicating their vision, and controlling the narrative.

    Secondly, and in line with the first, is all the polling that shows that the American people have a LESS favorable opinion of the Republicans in Congress than they do of the Democrats. This may be the first election in history where the less popular party defeats the more popular party in a landslide, if that is how it will turn out Of course the GOP will claim a mandate – how could they not? – but it is not clear what, if any, sort of a mandate there would be.

  5. I think it is probably #4, #4, #4, and then #4 followed by the others, likely in the order that you provided.

  6. Franklin says:

    Definitely #4 first.

    But there’s at least two other factors that may be more significant than some on the list. Based on the percentage of people who think Obama is a Muslim from Kenya, or on the much larger percentage who simply think he hasn’t really experienced America like “the rest of us”, I think people aren’t giving him the same chance as they might to somebody with a different identity.

    The other factor is Pelosi and Reid. I’m not sure if you could come up with two bigger dipshits to push a particular agenda. Plenty of people like Obama just fine or at least tolerate him, but they start to get a bit queasy when you include that dynamic duo.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Pfui. President Obama’s approval rating isn’t a lot different than previous post-war presidents at this point in their first terms. What’s different are a) the economy; and b) the Congress. To the extent that there’s a backlash against anything it’s a backlash against the Democratic Congressional leadership.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    Dave, what about the story that the Northwest Chicago Democratic Party headquarters threw away the flyers featuring Obama?

    “‘With all due respect, Obama has become poison among working-class voters,’ said one area Democratic committeeman. ‘The level of hostility is astounding.'”


    I think it’s one part Obama, one part economy and one part Congress. And these are overlapping components.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    What that demonstrates is that he’s unpopular with party activists. You ain’t seen nothing yet.